Archive for July, 2012

The Road to Atheism part XIV: Curious Revelations

July 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Most of this series has been about my experiences in getting away from religion. Which means that it is more a-religion than a-theism. I admit that the troubling aspect to is that it is hard to aruge against “god” without arguing against religion. If, for instance I want to argue that god has apparently no problem ordering his followers to massacre and entire group of non-believers, for no other reason that hey are non-believers and that shows that god has issues of immorality, the quick response (and a correct one as well) is that this situation is unique to one particular tradition (unless I’m speaking generally). It means that the tradition includes an instance of immorality, and that perhaps they have gotten it wrong, but surely that is different than god being immoral. What would be needed is to attack not an action, but a series of actions that are common to all traditions.

Of course, this is also frought with problems. It does nothing to argue against the metaphysical definition of god. Yet, since so many people argue for god independent of the metaphysical definitions we can save that for a later date. Instead we can discuss the rather interesting choices that with regard to the alleged messengers of god in both time, place, and person. It would seem, if we accept the stories at face value being true, that this personified divine being didn’t want people to hear his word.

If it did, why, I might ask, wouldn’t it reveal itself to everyone at the same time? Wouldn’t that save all of the people a lot of time and effort as well as eliminating people with my mindset? It’s almost as if this divine fellow wants the people of the world to fight over it like a ten year old in a divorce hearing. I know that in the past, I have mentioned that roughly all of the religions have the same moral stances with a few minor differences, but it’s those minor differences which start wars…even intra-religion. By having a universal revelation we would eliminate all of those wars of succession, wars of difference, there would be no more divine right of passage, people who would use religion to cloak their thirst for power would have a more difficult time of it than they do now. Why wasn’t the divine considering this when he decided to reveal itself to one person alone in a cave, on a hill, on a mountain, forest, or under a tree (Mohammed, Moses, L. Ron, Joseph Smith, Buddha, respectively). Only Arjuna, of Hindu Mythology, is given the truth in a crowd of people (whom he is then commanded to kill half of), but even then Krishna has stopped time to give it to him. Such solitary revelation means that everything is heard second hand, and that those of the skeptical disposition, like myself, would have no room to argue.

But solitary natures aside, what is worse, is who the divine picks. If you think about the world thousands of years ago governments were rules by kings and emperors for whom one word changed everything. Yet instead of going to the top of the hierarchy, god seems to prefer the bottom. Let’s go with Moses. According to the bible, Moses encountered a burning bush imploring him to free his people from the enslavement of the Egyptians. Now Moses had been previously of the house of the Pharaoh and was running from the law for killing an Egyptian soldier (even though he probably could have gotten off with probation given that his adopted dad was the Pharaoh) so that’s at least a good start, he could have the ear of the king…but he doesn’t. He’s on the run. Why take the indirect approach anyway? Why doesn’t “I Am Who Am” just pop into the throne room of the Pharaoh and tell him to let his people go? Were the heralds of god busy that day? I suppose Walken and Rickman are out of a job now if even they couldn’t get an appointment with the king. Quickly the objection will be stated that god is like Captain Kirk and has a directive against interference, but that doesn’t work with the numerous other times that god directly interferes, like when he murders the first born of every Egyptian. It’s almost like he doesn’t want to. Secondly, Moses is the shitty choice because as Ex. 4:10 tells us, Moses has some speech problems and must enlist his brother Aaron (it’s unclear if Aaron is his genetic brother or just his brother because they are both Hebrews). It’s just a bad choice, Moses certainly gets the leadership thing down after killing the non-believers during the exile in the desert, there were easier ways of going about it. Just tell the pharaoh who the real god is and convert all of Egypt to Judaism. That however isn’t the goal, at this point we are talking about tribal gods.

The case of Jesus actually is worse, because He’s supposed to actually be god but as a carpenter doesn’t have he authority to communicate the message even though his claim will be that only through him can one avoid eternal punishment. The message would have been infinitely easier to communicate, if say, Gabrielle had communicated the TRUTH to Augustus Caesar, who like Constantine several emperors later, converts all of Rome to Christianity with a single edict. Divine revelation only occurs to the bottom of society, Buddha–after he abdicated the throne, Mohammed an illiterate sheep herder, Joseph Smith-a convicted con artist, and L. Ron a hack science fiction writer. The late Christopher HItchens observed that this curious pattern is nothing but blatant populism. Especially when you consider that it doesn’t work, we aren’t all celebrating the same religion.

Why else would the time period always predate mass media? The most recent religion to develop is the cultish Scientology, and their unwillingness to share their actual words of truth for free not only belies their status as a cult, but indicates as well that they don’t want everyone in. It’s not even the lack of radio or television that makes the other religious revelations difficult to swallow, it’s also the inability to mass produce books, or even papers, not to mention that literacy rates were dismal during those times. The Egyptians, for instance, didn’t allow their populations to write. Maybe we should be expecting a follow up revelation in the near future where everyone can be connected to the internet, but given the false apocalypses we’ve been having lately (three in the last year and a half) I’m not holding my breath. It wouldn’t be so bad if the religions all weren’t claiming that they were the sole path to truth because of these divine revelations, which we have to all take on the word of those who possess no authority. It’s also difficult to accept because none of these revelations offer anything in the way of a proof for why we ought to believe. We just have to take someone else’s word that this happened to someone else, no court would accept it as evidence labelling it as hearsay at best.

I will give the divine credit in one respect: place. Having three major religions originate in the Middle East makes sense. It being the center of trade and all, and while I give it a hard time for who it chose with regard to Judaism and Egypt, it was at least the most powerful kingdom in the area…that or Persia, Persia kind of had it going on too. Still the problem is that the majority of the world is left out of the running, and word won’t spread that quickly. Heavy population centers are always going to have one or two people thinking that they ought to be in charge if only they could figure out a hook. Unfalsifiable evidence makes a good hook if you can get someone to believe in it. One might argue that if it weren’t true, no one would believe it, but that isn’t a good argument since every religion is set against each other over the “truth monopoly” that they all believe the others are incorrect.

The only remedy is to consider the idea that these stories are just that: stories designed to teach. They can’t be literal, because if they are it’s actually much worse in that whatever is in charge of the universe likes to set us against each other for no discernable reason. Perhaps the lesson of morals and day to day behavior are more important than the exclusionary message seems to communicate. I could accept that. I actually could, but for every instance that the authors of these texts, the alleged witnesses of divine revelation, tell us how to be kind to one another there are two more that command the spilling of blood. Perhaps Critias was right, that religion is a tool of those in power to confer fear on to the masses. The effect of unifying one people and excluding all of the others makes sense in tribal worlds, and always portrays the revealed as being the underdogs who have the edge. Everyone loves an underdog which is perhaps why the revelations always occur…which is convenient in only one sense of the word.

Categories: philosophy, religion

The Road to Atheism Part XIII: Confessions regarding Confession.

July 22, 2012 1 comment

The first openly defiant action against religion in general, or Catholicism specifically, was a childhood friend’s refusal to participate in Confession during highschool. As I have stated, I attended a Catholic high school, and during Lent we would be excused from our religion class to go to the school chapel and participate in confession. For the unfamiliar confession is the second of the holy sacraments, that you first attend around second grade of elementary school. I term it “the wash” and that is not meant to be perjorative, but rather descriptive. By participating in the sacrament you, the penitent, are given a clean slate. The sin is gone, in some ways as though it was never committed, but in all other ways it can no longer be held against you as the completion of the sacrament means that even God has forgiven you. It’s like when McCoy on “Law and Order” asks that something be stricken from the record, the jury can no longer consider that statement. It doesn’t exist, sure it happened but it can bear no effect on the future (this works better in theory than in practice). So the lies I told, the things I stole, etc. are all washed away and as long as I was truly sorry and truly repentant they were all forgiven. It’s between God and the applicant, no one else (the priest is just the medium here) and you know what? I’m not going to argue against it, believe it or don’t it’s entirely subjective.

At least now…as a kid this wasn’t subjective. It had objective consequences, or it seemed to. This is probably one of those situations in which you can tell right away how religious a person is going to be based on how they resolve the battle that occurs in the mind. The war between what you know to be the truth and what you know you are supposed to believe to be the truth. Since there will be a not insignificant number of people who are unfamiliar with the process of Confession here’s how it works: you wait in line. This is probably the first instance in my life where I encountered the “hurry up and wait” phenomenon that plagues all of us. Once you are waiting, you stand (or sit, depends on the place) and are supposed to be contemplating the sins that you have committed since either your last confession or Baptism. Essentially you are to come up with a list of the things you did that were immoral and prepare to tell them to another person.

This was difficult for more practical reasons. As a kid we were confessing to the local Parish priest, kind of obvious right? Now, part of the sacrament is that the priest is never supposed to divulge this information to anyone, ever. Law and Order (most versions), Oz, that movie with Edward Norton, have all used this as a turning stone for the plot. But just because he is not permitted to tell anyone doesn’t necessarily mean that he isn’t going to treat you differently and when its the parish priest its a tricky. We were taught to respect the priest as he was in charge of the parish. By proxy this meant he was in charge of the school that was literally attached to the church. So, if you cheated on a test at the school it might occur to you to consider that the priest would now treat you different. Furthermore, if your family was involved with the church in some way in which you had frequent contact with the priest you might feel skittish around the person that knew exactly how you were lying to your parents.

After a period of time it becomes your turn. Now, to its credit, Rome offers a choice for people that doubt the objectiveness of the priest. When you approach the confessional you are given a choice, the face-to-face confession or you can kneel behing a screen. Now, I always viewed the screen as being cowardly. If you were truly sorry for your sins it shouldn’t matter whether or not someone can see you explaining what you did. Further the screen only shielded your face (and not that well either) not your voice. I used to do the face to face thing, because why the hell not.

ONce in the box though, you begin by explaining when the last time you attended confession was, and why, usually, it was so long. My family never took us to Confession, the only time I ever went was when school made me. So I just usually explained that, which was nice, because it took the heat off of me. Yet, I always wondered why this question was asked. It made as much sense to me as asking what grade a student expects on a teacher evaluation form. Is he asking because he wants to know how long he will ahve to listen to you prattle on or because he wants to know how good of a Catholic you are?

Anyway, the next step is to do the actual confessing. You being with the mortal sins, the sins that cleave the bond between your person and god. Breaking one of the ten is usually considered mortal, committing one of the seven, etc. Although the church does allow for some exceptions but it gives a lemon test on whether you performed a mortal or a venial sin. For something to be considered a mortal sin it must meet all of the following criteria:

1) You have to know that your action was sinful. 2) You had to perform it with full and deliberate consent (i.e. you can’t have been tricked or forced into it). 3) It must have been a serious subject matter (white lies don’t count, stealing bread to feed your starving child, etc.).

At the grade school age the most common sin was lying, petty theft, and cursing. This was probably not due to our sacrosanct nature but rather to the fact that the other sins weren’t available to us. If we didn’t go to church on the Sabbath that wasn’t our fault, because we weren’t in charge of where we went, girls were kind of yucky at that age so that rules out a good number of them, so more often than not confession must have been pretty boring for the priest involved.

As kids we just kind of went through the motions until it became routine. Yet, I took it seriously, very seriously, to the point where if I couldn’t think of anything bad that I had done, I would get nervous. I was a sinner, I had to be, there was only one person that was free of sin and I wasn’t her. To me, looking back I’m appalled that this could even be thought. If a person took a child and constantly reminded them that they were sinful and bad, that they couldn’t possibly live up to some standard of perfection it would be child abuse. Do it for two thousand years out of some book that no one knows who wrote and it’s not only helpful but apparently necessary for the maintenance of the moral compass of civilization. It’s not abuse, it’s religion.

After long enough, even the devout get bored. You start telling the priest “just the usual.” I began to question what I was doing, what I had done, and why it was considered wrong. I spent time in the halls for that, but even that got to be routine. I was still at the point where my questions had the point of me wanting to know why things were, but I accepted the truth of it. I just wanted the middle part of the syllogism. If lying brought about good results was it still wrong? Those kinds of things.

Then, in high school, was where I saw the first openly defiant action (getting back to our original subject) against the church. I had a friend, “Tim,” who was as Irish Catholic as Irish Catholics get tell us that he didn’t do confession. It was brought up because one of the things we realized was that while we were in school, it was still Catholic school and if you notice that “C” is capitalized. During Lent, all good Catholics are required to participate in Confession at least once lest they are unable to receive the holy Communion so they weren’t going to rush a sacrament to get us to math class and if we took a long time in Confession we could skate by a class. Tim wouldn’t play ball. Like me, he took it seriously, I was just willing to list all of the lies. He wasn’t being bad in the rebellious sort of way, the teachers and priests at the school couldn’t make you go in, they could only make you go to the chapel. Like sinning, confession cannot be done at the point of a gun.

Tim’s point was that he didn’t see the reason for the mediator between him and god. He didn’t think that the priest added anything to the equation but assigning penance, which was usually kneeling for thirty minutes while reciting some prayers. His question was how repeating the “Our Father” twenty times was going to erase that time he stole a candy bar from the grocery store. His main issue of the mediator, really took hold. This was the first time someone openly questioned the religion and it was different from my delving into the Trinity, this was a sacrament. It was a big deal, it was like questioning whether Moses was a real person or not.

I don’t know what the official recommendation for the number of times a penitent is supposed to go to Confession a year, but I will repeat that if the schools didn’t make us go I would never have gone. Most of the Catholics I know haven’t gone to confession since they were made by either working at a church/school or being guilted into it at a relative’s first Confession. Almost all of them give the same explanation that “Tim” did when we were 15 in high school, what exactly is the point? I can be sorry without the local duke forgiving me. It’s like the Jewish notion of the scape goat, the sins are gone from the person now and left out in the desert, but did we need to kill a goat for it in the first place?

If pressed, I would guess I would have to confess that I felt a little better after confession than before it. Although I would attribute that to being similar to the same sense of relief one feels after revealing a secret. The worst part of confession is that you get forgiven by the person you haven’t wronged…in two ways. If I lied to “Tim” and then confess it to the priest, he forgives me, but I have still wronged “Tim,” but “Tim” hasn’t forgiven me, yet somehow it’s all better?

The same goes with God. The priest is forgiving me in place of God, but again this makes no sense. They can’t guarantee that God has forgiven me because they don’t have that power. If I wrong person X, and then ask Y to forgive me, can we seriously assume that Y’s absolution is going to be an expression of X’s will? One might say that the latter example is different than the former because it deals with god, but that just begs the question. How do we know?

I get a lot of crap for being an Atheist. Yet one thing is certain, if I wrong a person, I can only be forgiven by them for what I did, not from someone else who has no knowledge of that other person. Responsibility is solely on me, and no amount of hand waving or unconscious recitation can make it go away.

Categories: philosophy, religion

Concerning a political Fallacy

July 16, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve discussed this before, but given the upcoming election I feel that it at least bears mentioning again. It concerns the role of government and more specifically the role of the chief executive of that government, and why we, as a country, have been drawn into accepting a false dichotomy about the qualification to be president. That somehow a person who has done well in business is somehow better qualified to run a government than someone who has not.

First off a bit of empirical evidence, of the five usual names given for greatest president in the history of the United States, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, and JFK, not one of them were businessmen. Apparently they were all less qualified than any CEO now to run the country, despite the fact that two of those names helped build it, two saved it and the other was JFK. The business man as president doesn’t have precedent.

The idea makes sense when first loked at: business and government have a lot in common. Both involve lots of people, lots of money, and have a relatively centralized form of control. If one were to be good at the one it ought to stand to reason that they would be good at the other. Yet if we delve deeper into the situation, we can see that there are profound differences between them.

The first being the point of each. I overheard during the last week, someone who said that there was nothing wrong with a president that knew how to make money. And that’s probably the major distinction. The goal of a business is to make money, the goal of a government is not that. A business is concerned with profit primarily, in fact some would claim that this is the sole motive of a company. That would have to be taken on a case by case basis. Government, at least this one, is supposed to guarantee the security, safety, and liberty of its citizens. In democratic governments the government is the citizenry.

The second point is that unlike business, government must engage in behavior  that are, as Adam Smith defined them, unproductive; i.e. they produce nothing which can be gained for a return. The three largest expenditures necessary for all governments which are a drain on their resources are: Criminal Justive, Defense, and Education. Those three give little to no material profit yet must be done for a successful state to exist. Defense does not pay for itself, except in some kind of imperialist government where conquered nations are to give tribute to their conqueror, but even then the expense outweighs the cost of the operation. Education benefits the society, but it’s a long term return that would not see a profit in the President’s lifetime. Paying for education in the grade school level now only returns monetary benefit, at the earliest, by the time the student gets a job. There is the enriching of the general knowledge of the society but let me know when a CEO gets credit for non-tangible effects such as that. Criminal Justice, likewise, can bring in revenue through the levying of fines but, like defense, the cost outweighs the gain. In each case we can see that the basic functions of government will be money sink holes. Even if you could argue that the role of government is not to assist in the education of its citizens you still have two very large, very expensive costs that no business could survive if they spent the same percentage of their monetary intake on maintaining.

Thirdly, and this is a question I pose to those holding the theory. What good is that extra money going to do you, personally? Those that are beholden to the theory think that we ought to be cutting government programs (although the ones they pick usually make up less than 1% of the financial expenditure of the US), but where ought that money go? They can cut taxes but that would be like a business slashing cost so that it can cut profit as well. That simply doesn’t make sense. The money is going to sit there to do…what exactly? I have no idea what a government that would turn a profit would be like, except the public work projects that the theorists seem to reject as being unnecessary. So it will just sit in a room. There are no shareholders in government, and any kind of monetary sharing would be cried as Socialism by those same people.

Whether or not a buysiness man makes a good president is cannot be proven a priori, nor ought it be assumed. It appears to me that anyone making this case is either ignorant of the differences between government and business or has some alternate agenda that I am utterly clueless about.

Categories: politics

The Road to Atheism Part XII: Deception

July 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Spring 2002: I’m living in Toledo OH, pursuing what would eventually be my first master’s degree. I lived alone, no television, no internet, and for the most part it was kind of boring. Classes on some days of the week, TA duty on another, Chess night on Thursday, etc. On and on it went. Life, was for the most part pretty motonous. One day, someone in the undergraduate philosophy club put up a flier in the dungeon (where the TAs are kept), it advertised  a joint venture with the Campus Christian Fellowship (or whatever it was called) sponsoring an afternoon where people would get together watch a bunch of Simpson’s episodes, presumably eat pizza, and then discuss the various philosophical and theological issues that were brought up by the episodes. If that seems like an odd thing, you have to understand that the Spring of 2002 saw the release of “The Simpsons and Philosophy” as well as “The Gospel According to the Simpsons;” both books writing of a serious subject(s) with a pop culture lense so that more people could grasp the issue at hand. There existed some legitimate academic weight to doing so. Both books were popular and I figured that was the reason they were having the meeting in the first place. My primary motive in going to the meeting was to watch the Simpsons, I feel that it would be dishonest to not admit that up front.

At this point in my life I’m still religious, I’m just into the Eastern ideas that I brought up in an earlier post. I wasn’t there to cross-convert, I have never been–even at my peak of religious devotion-into evangelizing. I had no interest in refuting anyone else’s religion, and at this point I had no direct experience with bible-literalists. I didn’t want any of these things either, I just wanted to watch some television and eat pizza, but by the end of the meeting it would all change. In all earnestness; it wasn’t my fault.

Toledo, OH was the first city that I saw a mega-church. I knew that going in, these Christians were going to be different, but I was raised Catholic so how different could they really be? I asked one of my other fellow students to come with me and on a midweek afternoon we walked over to a building I had never been in to watch reruns of a show that we both liked. The meeting began with a prayer, not one I was used to but it was supposed to be an ecumenical meeting so we just let that go. The prayer thing was to be expected since it was, after all, a Christian organization, they then quickly began the episode: Season 11, episode 15, aka “Missionary Impossible.” In this episode Homer fakes a pledge to PBS and Betty White (before she was cool) in order that a violent Scottish sitcom can be aired. When they come collecting Homer runs to the Rev. Lovejoy who puts him on a plane to a south pacific island to do missionary work.

The episode ended with a thinly veiled attack by Matt Groening on the Fox Network for cancelling Futurama, the discussion leader began talking about his personal experience with being a missionary. As he finished, someone else in the audience (of about twenty) told a similar story. I smelled a plant, i.e. someone that is placed in an audience with the sole purpose of confirming the host’s position. My suspicions were confirmed when they began to pass out pamphlets which described how one would go about volunteering for missionary work. What was in fact happening was not an open discussion but a recruitment drive. My problem was this: if they wanted to recruit volunteers they certainly can–even if I am opposed to what they are doing, I just won’t go. If, however some group is going to misrepresent themselves, and waste my time there’s something wrong. Two things: one is the obvious deception, while the second is a matter of pragmatism. DId they really think I was going to sign up after having been lied to? How effective is their message if they have to deceive people in order to hear it?

At this point in the meeting I felt that i had permission to begin an attack. They had wronged me first by lying, and it seems to me to be my duty to at least make an attempt to get the discussion that I had been promised. My colleague was not as kind. He began by attacking the notion of missionary work itself. He used the episode. The people of the island that Homer was sent to talked ruefully of how the previous missionaries taught them “the joy of shame” in reference to Homer wondering why they didn’t walk around naked like he expected. My colleague’s point was that the natives seemed to be perfectly happy before some outsiders showed up and told them their way of life was wrong and needed to change. This is what French Philosopher Rousseau talked about when he discussed “The Noble Savage.” I disagree with the Frenchman but he has a point on this. Is it really necessary to bring what we call civilization to people who may not need it and probably don’t want it? Is it really bad that the natives on an isolated island aren’t exposed to religion, or at least, someone else’s religion? Or does placing “god” in the picture make it ok to resurrect the White Man’s Burden?

Now this idea, that perhaps people can live a prosperous life without having heard of Jesus, Buddha, Muhammed, etc. seemed quite foreign to a good number of people in the room. The host took up the defense, and it was odd. He began talking about how good the missionary work made him feel. Such subjective claims are difficult to deal with because what he is in effect doing, is asking us to to explain that if what he did was wrong then why did he feel good about it? You can’t prove someone else’s internal feelings were incorrect, it’s so personal. Yet, that knife cuts two ways. Just as much as I can’t understand how good he felt, he can’t impart that feeling to me, only instill jealousy that I hadn’t had the same feeling. However if he’s going to derive such a good feeling from bringing Jesus to the heathens, then I’m going to wonder why such cultural dominance can give such a feeling to begin with. Is it the satisfaction of a conqueror?

I did, and do believe, that he thinks he did the right thing. The thing about morality and reality, though, is that it doesn’t change based on how one feels about it. The reason that I mention this brings us to one of the fundamental problems of the missionary, uh…mission, is it necessary?

The first encouner Dante has in hell, is that of the noble pagans. These were people like Aristotle (and where Virgil himself is locked) whose only crime was not knowing of Jesus. Other than that, they done no wrong. I believe that Catholicism has long since abandoned sending people to hell for true ignorance of Jesus, but most other religions still maintain it (Mormons and post death baptism come to mind). The Christian sect talking at this meeting had to believe it, because if not, then who are they helping? Outreach programs and charities are good things, but why do they need to advertise why they did it, if not in order to convert. They may build a hospital on some island in Indonesia, but I’ll guarantee that a cross goes on it. Isn’t true goodness doing something and not bragging about it? I read that in a book somewhere, though the title escapes me.

Sure I may be a bit harsh, but what it comes down to for me is cultural superiority. The missionary knows, knows, that these people are in need of the salvation that only their religion can bring. Otherwise, the very fact that they were born, where they were born will doom them to hell.

Oddly enough the episode in question ends with Homer destroying the island because he rung a bell on the chapel he built, which causes a volcano to erupt. I made the point that had Homer and the previous missionaries never visited the island the volcano never would exploded. I said that in response to his point that it was good that the islanders found Jesus before the eruption. I’m of the opinion that my point was better.

Categories: philosophy, religion