Archive for September, 2012

The Road to Atheism part XVIII: Substance Transference or Trying to Understand Something that I Guess I understood When I Was Little But Makes No Sense Now

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

While my first sacrament was baptism I have no recollection of it. The first one that I was conscious of was that of Confession, or as it is also called “Reconciliation.” The first experience of a sacrament was that of communion. I know, it’s weird, but this entire post is going to be about this. As a kindergartner we had religion class which was mostly just singing songs and being told that Jesus lived us despite being unworthy of his sacrifice (they recently explained this to my daughter as well…she’s four). What my school did was decide to have a communion primer. They would give us the experience of doing that strange thing that all of the adults did toward the end of church on Sunday, where they would stand up wait in line for a bit get something to eath and drink and then remain oddly quiet for a couple of minutes. We were supposed to be on our best behavior as this was something hugely important that we were undertaking. It wouldn’t be immediate as there were some logistical issues that were being worked out but it would take place in our classroom and it was super super important. 

The communion or Eucharist is the most important ritual of the Catholic religion (feel free to disagree below, but I think that’s an unassailable position). Aside from the authority of the pope, the special aspect conferred upon the bread thingy, is what separates Catholicism from other brands of Christianity. The whole deal is based upon the story of the Last Supper, which unlike most stories actually appears in all four gospels (Mat. 26: 17-30, Mark 14:12-26, Luke 22: 7-39, John 13: 1-17). Without getting into the nuances of the theological reasons the ritual is derived from this tale, the deal is that Jesus shares some bread and wine with his followers saying that he is sharing his body and blood with them and thus they can enter into the kingdrom of god. The thing about this is that in Catholicism this is take literally. I mean “literally” literally. In a Catholic mass the food items (I really don’t know what to call what passes for bread here) undergo what is known as transubstantiation. That is to say, there is a literal swapping of one substance for another. In this case, the wine literally becomes the blood and the wafer thing literally becomes meat. Other Christianities make this metaphorical but not Catholics–and I can’t stress this enough–it’s literal substance substitution. In any other venue the process would be regarded as magic or at best alchemy (again: magic). 

Leaving this aside for a minute, it’s important to note the sequence of events. The food items are merely food items before the ceremony. Worth the same as their purchase price. So the 5 dollar bottle of wine is just that, a bottle of wine (the vintage varies from church to church, most wisely use red for the color association). The bread thing, is just…well whatever the hell it is. I’ve never been to a service where they used real bread, or even something that resembles real bread (like a crouton or whatever). In other words the items are nothing special. 

In the class the teachers wanted us to do an actual run through but without the blessed food items. It would be pretend, without the priest doing the transubstantiation, or as I know understand it, he could have paid lip service to the blessing but without the commitment of the will which performs the actual work of a blessing. We ran into a problem, the priest thought it wrong to give us the unblessed cracker thing. This didn’t make sense. Prior to the blessing it could be anything, literally anything, because without the blessing it’s just a piece of stuff. So why is it wrong to distribute the stuff? (I’m not sure if “wrong” is the correct word, maybe impious would be better but that seems incorrect as well) While it seems to me that he might have been attempting to preserve the sanctity of the sacrament, that explanation doesn’t fly because there is no sacrament present. The real reasoning as I look back must be about the preservation of the mystery. If we had received the unblessed thing, and then a year or two later, we received the blessed wafer thing, we might begin asking questions about why there was no difference between them. To a kid that seems a normal question, something supremely important has just occured so it should be different in a measurable respect. An adult, however understands that while there is a difference no difference ought to be expected. It seems to me that the kids seem to have a better comprehension of how it works…until they are told about the importance. 

The way that substance transference works is that nothing changes physically. So the flavor, texture, and consistency of “wheat” remains but the underlying substance has now shifted. We’re not talking atomically, quarkily, or even Boson-y; it is utterly undetectable. So the question remains, why not give the unchanged items to the kids? Just explain it to them later, or during, or whatever that the supernatural shift does not affect the physical real world in any way. What are we afraid the kids are going to ask? 

What always bothered me about the whole deal was that the substance isn’t physically changed then why does it matter what it starts off as? Couldn’t the wafer thing be a doughnut, bagel, or english muffin (for the morning services)? It shouldn’t matter at all what it is prior. Why do priests with celiac’s disease or alcoholics get special dispensations for their respective conditions? Should not the actual body and blood of the Savior of the world, at the very least, not get people sick? Of course not, since the transference is not substantial but linguistic. The reason we, as kids, couldn’t do it is because we were unable to grasp the linguistic change, i.e. that if you call something by a different name it performs a different function without any other change to the physical item. This is a pure faith sacrament that makes claims about substance/physical subtance, then it excuses any way to test it. Such is the method of all miracles. 

The Communicant, believes only because the people before them believe, and those people taught them that the linguistic shift is all-important and not to be questioned. Even writing this is difficult because I know of the importance of what I am writing, and that perhaps I am stepping on too big of a toe. It is beyond understanding theologically, what happens in the shift, though it seems to me that it’s nothing but semantics. 

Categories: philosophy, religion

The Road to Atheism XVII: Devolving on Evolution or Please Understand What “Theory” Means Before You Prove That You’re An Idiot

September 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Growing up as a Christian Catholic is somewhat different than growing up as one of the myriad sects of Christianity that exist. This is especially in terms of knowledge. I admit that there is a little bias on the subject, but that bias is well earned. The Catholic church, at least, and to their credit, does not reject the findings of science. Now, they may have issues of a moral basis with those findings, but they accept the scientific method and the concepts of experimentation and recreatibility. The pope has, and has had for a long time now, an astronomical observatory, a monk was the first person recording genetic inheritance (with peas I believe), and it was a monsignor who developed the initial hypothesis concerning the “big bang,” importantly, for this post Catholics are, at least as late as 1950 (although acceptance was normal but not formal) they accept the theory of evolution. Where myself and the Catholic church diverge is on matter relating to reproduction (or lack thereof depending on the case).

Accepting the evidence of evolution required zero effor growing up. Not to say that it was dogmatically driven into my head the way religion was, rather the evidence was briefly explained and then we moved to a different subject. It seemed conclusive, things adapt to their environment, why else do we need a new flu shot every year? I never really paid attention to it, I still don’t except when it becomes challenged by people with little to no understanding of it, or those in simple denial. It’s part of the effect of living in a homogenous culture. The idea that someone would challenge evidence was so completely foreign to me that I didn’t understand why my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the topic with a disclaimer. The first non-Catholic I knew was an Episcopalian (so that doesn’t really count), and he bought it as well. The only controversies I knew of were concerning the speed of evolution and what things evolved into. For instance whether a Smilodon became a Tiger or something stupid (it’s the latter).

Eventually I became aware of the controversy, but I thought it was silly, I mean it was settled. The science existed: chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor, some dinosaurs had feathers, most are related to birds and are really cool, etc. These are accepted theories, which are confirmed hypotheses. It seemed that the only reason I would pay attention to it was that every so often that there was another court case which had to reaffirm that the first amendment forbids forcibly indoctrinating religion in the public sphere, no matter if the attempt was in flat out teaching “Creation,” “Creationism,” so-called “equal time laws,” “intelligent design,” or putting a sticker on a text book so that morons could rest assured that school children were learning the false notion of the word “theory.” It was all the same attempt, an attempt to instruct people in the ways of bible literalism. As a young Catholic I was taught to accept two things: the bible isn’t meant to be taken literal and that evolution was god’s mechanism–those that felt otherwise were mistaken.

I was in my early twenties when I had my first confrontation with an Usherrist. My devotion to religion was gone, my belief in a personal god was ebbing away quickly. The culture war initiated by the religious arm of the American Right Wing had done the opposite of its intended goal on me. This was circa 2004, Ohio had just passed a law banning gay marriage (even though it wasn’t allowed and doing nothing would have kept homosexual marriage from being a thing with the added bonus of not making the population of the state seem like a bunch of d-bags) which was completely religiously motivated. That’s the setting, being an idiot was ok, as long as you were of the religious idiot variety you could say anything and back it up with some bible and people would nod their heads.

The Usherrist was explaining in the cigar shop something about how science required belief too (an issue I dealt with two posts ago–scroll down), which is true when you are speaking metaphysically…but that deals with assenting to something, such as “a triangle has three sides” not “although the evidence is to the contrary I still believe X.” A friend of mine asked the Usherrist why you needed faith-belief to accept evidence. The Usherrist ignored the question and focused on exactly the wrong point; he instead asked if we believed in evolution. My friend said sort of, I explained that I accepted the theory. He asked me about the lack of transitional fossils, and if I was ignoring that lack because of faith-belief.

A little background: an Usherrist is a bible literalist with respect to the historical “evidence” regarding time. Usher, a monk, took the bible and worked backwards from the independently established events in the bible (the reign of Augustus for example) through the genealogies to arrive at the birth of the universe. It’s quite an accomplishment and evidence of his supreme patience. It must have also been difficult to even begin with since the bible can’t even get the genealogy of Jesus correct, but nevertheless it is from Usher that we get the idea of a 6000 year old Earth. That’s the person I am talking to.

The whole deal with the alleged “war” between science and religion is that religion started it. Science is a way of explaining the way the world operates, just like religion does, the only difference is that scientific observations are recreatable, thus demonstrable to anyone. Want to make a can of diet coke explode? Throw a Mentos in it, and every time (as long as the pop is still carbonated) it will explode due to chemistry. Religion deals with personal revelation that only a handful of individulas, in the history of time, are privy too and we are supposed to take their word for it. Religion, if it were to stand in the way of science, would be swept away said the Catholic Philosopher Descartes. For instance, we think of illness as an infection because we understand anatomy, biology, and germ theory. We do not think of illness as a curse from god. To do so would be to run counter to what is now considered common sense…unless you are a Christian Scientist.

The way in which religion does this is through taboo. It is forbidden to talk about ideas contrary to the tenets of religion. So when faced with evidence that contradicts the teachings of a religion, it is the evidence that is denied. Sometimes there are legitimate questions, but when faced with answers the person acts as though the answers are insufficient. For example, when the Usherrist asked me about the lack of transitional fossils I supplied them: the archaeoptyryx (a half dinosaur-half bird), elasmosaurus (fish-dinosaur), the velociraptor (dinosaur with feathers). These are readily available but were immediately denied as not being enough to prove anything. What more was this guy looking for? The damn lizard has feathers!

What more could this person need, as he is being provided with, and this is utterly important–the exact thing that he is asking for. Ignorance of such a thing such as transitional fossils is, at this point, willful. In other words you must be either sheltered from the information by someone who doesn’t want you to know or, you are purposely not looking up the information because you don’t want to be proven wrong.

What this told me was that faith like his is utterly one sided. It wasn’t belief despite a lack of evidence in favor, it was belief in spite of secific evidence to the contrary. When an Usherrist (or oddly enough, any conspiracy theorist) ask for proof they are lying. Theirs is not a request, but a command to adopt their line of thinking. What I realize now, that I didn’t then, is the utter disparity in standard of proof.

The theory of evolution, for example, in order to be accepted by those like the Usherrist, has to meet the most illogical standard of evidence that it exists: that of happening directly in front of them at the exact time that they are asking for it. On the other hand, merely accepting the bible as literal truth seems to be something that is accepted without question, this despite the contradictions inherent within it, and despite that the King James Version has passages in it which were changed to fit a political agenda. The Bible, offers the exact same proof for its veracity that Homer offers in the Odyssey–none. The bible doesn’t even offer a remote proof of its central character’s existence any more than Hesiod did the Greek Pantheon.

The difference between them is that those on the science side of things, have the same standard of evidence for both scientific claims that they do for religious ones. If you can demonstrate the truth of the matter it’s accepted. It wouldn’t matter if the claim was the Higgs Boson, life on Mars, transubstantiation, or unicorns. If you could demonstrate the truth of the matter, and others could easily observe it the acceptance would naturally follow. The Usherrist’s claims run afoul of that.

He can claim that the Earth is only 6000 years old, but he only has one source of evidence whose veracity only exists by presupposing that you accept its veracity (i.e. the “the bible is god’s word because the bible says so” argument). That’s not evidence, and it does nothing to ruin all of the evidence in favor of the theory of evolution and natural selection. At least those are testable.

Categories: philosophy, religion

Being an Atheist III: The Deism/Atheism Difference or Agnostics Need not Apply

September 9, 2012 1 comment

Religious belief, if we are to believe the philosopher Hegel, religious belief goes through a number of evolutions (yes I used that word on purpose) before it arrives at the level where we are now. One explanation for the existence of, what I am right now terming “proto-religion,” is the terror of the majesty of nature. A bunch of knuckle dragging cave dwellers may have seen a volcanic eruption for the first time and decided that it needed worship lest it’s terrible force be unleashed again, or some fish eaters on the banks of the Nile, Amazon, Ganges; decided that since their entire existence is owed to the whims of the river the river must again be worshiped. Then came the idea that instead of the river being a god there must be something in charge of the river and that it is what must worshipped. People then tired of the bickering gods of the sky, river, volcano and just kind of put all of the gods into one god and bang: monotheism. Or we can take the Hindu version for which polytheism is just an extension of the one divine yet in the end it’s still one thing. Charles Taylor’s book “A Secular Age” pointed out that there was a point in time where being an atheist simply wasn’t an option. It was difficult enough to be a member of a different religion but you had to be religious. This is around what we call the middle ages. It was taken for granted that you were a religious person.

Then it all changed. Now, a person may not be a religious person, they may not even believe in god; yet like the evolution of the religious belief there was an evolution of denial of religious belief, and, no, this has nothing to do with Darwin. One of those steps was not in the denial of god, but in the denial of god’s involvement in the world and the denial that what was/is known as religion has nothing to do with the metaphysical and/or supernatural. The first deist was probably the philosopher Thales, who sought to explain the world in terms of natural events by predicting with accuracy a solar eclipse, although he did also postulate that the world “sparkled with the gods” so maybe he is out. It would just be a nice synergy if we could consider the first deist to be the same person as the first recorded philosopher. Oh well. 

Deism however was attractive to several of the American Founding Fathers. Yes, despite that insulting painting of Jesus handing Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson the Constiution (it should be insulting to all Americans because it denies the genius of the minds who developed the document) those three men were not reliigious people. Frankling was definitely a Deist, Jefferson is a tricky case because Deism is the most religious he is getting and that’s being generous to religous people. Washington’s case is a matter of debate and sources contradict each other. What is known is that he was an Anglican, but rejected it because of the oath that Anglicans at the time had to swear to the supremacy of the English Monarch. It seems from some sources that Washington’s religiousness was somewhere between Deism and Christian Theism. To really get a confirmed, undisputed religious American president you really have to start with, ironically, Andrew “I’ve killed more men than Consumption” Jackson. Yet this is all Ad Populum, to which we could also add Thomas Paine and Mark Twain. I’ll stop there.

Deism is the belief that there exists a prime mover who created the world, but then that’s it. A friend of mine once called it the “deadbeat dad” religion. It assumes that the creator god has no involvement or interest in the world. Religions that worship it are just blowing smoke because god has no stake in the game anymore. It has its origin in the Hellenistic philosophical school of Epicureanism. They believed that there were gods but those gods were profoundly disinterested in the world. They eschewed superstition trusting instead to scientific and rational inquiry.

In both Epicureanism and Deism, the idea is that why would the gods have any interest in the world? As David Hume puts it in “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776)” that “still it must be acknowledged, that, by representing the Deity as so intelligible and comprehensible, and so similar to a human mind, we are guilty of the grossest and most narrow partiality, and make ourselves the model of the whole universe.”

It is only egotism that causes us to anthropomorphise the gods. We are interested in our creation therefore the gods must be interested in theirs. Yet this is foolish because our creations are so different from the gods’ that to even use the word “creation” seems wrong. The only interaction seems to be that of beginning the initial creative act and then…no involvement. Deism will still fall into the uncaused-cause problem of all religion, wherein we ask what created the gods but its similarity with religious belief ends there.

The question of the nature of divinity becomes important when you consider that it is entirely possible that an Atheist and a Deist could have the exact same belief based on the answer to the question of divine identity. In other words, does the divine have identity? Is this god character a person or is it just a place holder name that we use for the cosmos? We can use the words of Thomas Paine for evidence of this link, while on the opening page of his work “The Age of Reason (1793-1794)” he admits his belief in one god and his hope of life after death, he describes later (pg. 30) that if we need something to worship we have all of creation instead of a single entity that has a unique identity.

This is idea is called around this time period, Natural Religion. It is described by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations as the “one true religion” and by David Hume. All of them referring to a divine that is not the typical man in the clouds that is the head of all of the world religions. if the universe is worthy of admiration, which it certainly is; then can one admire the universe without ascribing to it the agency of identity? Obviously this is not a question of agnositicism versus religiousness.

The question we want to answer is at one point does the Atheist admiring the universe cross the line into Deism? Can the big bang be regarded as a divinity for the purposes of religious classification? Does, conversely, religious theism require some sort of directing agency to be considered properly, as theistic? It seems apparent that Theistic belief requires continual involvement in the affairs of the world.

All forms of religious belief seem to require some version of this directing agency if they are to isolate themselves from Atheism. On the surface it may appear that Atheism and Deism are completely different on the essential level yet the effect on those who follow the two seem to be exactly the same in practice. It may be false to include writers such as Paine and Twain, and politicians like Jefferson in the camp of Atheism but as their beliefs were such that no god had any involvement or stake in their lives is the difference anything other than semantics?

I wonder this because as we gaze on the landscape of Mars, I am met again with the awe of the universe. To even imagine what it must be like to stand on even the moon is incredible, but to know that we have a functioning robot on Mars is staggering. The other feeling is that of the incredible indifference of the Cosmos. The rate at which the mechanical operation of our solar system have not not changed one bit despite not only the immense achievement of both feats, but that of the entire existence of humanity. It’s as if the universe does not care about our little mudball and its inhabitants.

It seems the difference between the two is, again, that of the creating agency in the beginning of the world. What can make the question more difficult is whether the creating agency needs to have a consciousness. If not, the difference is entirely unclear. Aristotle’s god in the Metaphysics, could hardly be thought of as even being a creator god making it one step from Deism toward Atheism. In any case the actions of Atheists and Deists are supposed to be guided by reason. With that consideration is the difference between the two of any substance? It doesn’t appear to be so.

Categories: philosophy, religion