Archive for February, 2013

Being An Atheist XIII: It’s Not Temptation Unless You Want It or Don’t Already Have It

February 22, 2013 Leave a comment

This post is going to refer to the New Testament story concerning the story of Jesus and his forty days in the desert. Hit Wikipedia or if you are not familiar with it. I used the KJV version, but the story doesn’t change that much from NIV to KJV or any of the others.

In one of the many books of Niccolo Machiavelli we are told the story of the last days of the Second Punic War. Carthage was attempting to sue for peace as the armies of the Roman Legion had amassed on the plain of Zama and Scipio, now called Africanus, is meeting with the Carthaginian envoy. The details of the Second Punic War are vast but this is the war that almost removed Rome from the history books after the massacre that was the battle of Cannae. Rome rallied pushing Carthage out of Gaul, Spain, Sicily, and the Mediterranean. Carthage, the once supreme power of the world was now reduced to nothing more than a client state unless they get peace from Rome. The deal that Carthage offered was that they would promise Rome never to raise arms against them, as well as give them Gaul, Spain, Sicily and most of North Africa. Scipio rebuked them saying that Carthage could not give Rome what Rome already had.

This draws a parallel with the temptation in the desert. While this isn’t a story that is central to the Christian religion it is help up as an example of the exemplary conduct of Jesus in a time of suffering when he is offered three temptations that would get him out of the suffering. The trouble is, is that if you examine the story closely, it doesn’t make any sense. The temptations aren’t really temptations, and this is all without considering that this suffering is entirely self-inflicted.

The quick summary is that Jesus went into the desert, for one reason or another, for forty days to fast. Some time in, towards the end if Matthew is to be believed, God’s buddy shows up. By buddy, I mean the Devil. The Devil is odd here, and I mean odd for all devils in all mythologies, because here he acts like a fool. Devils are usually intelligent, eschewing raw power for cleverness, and being a general thorn in the side, but generally on the right side of things. Really, in the story of Job, the devil only did what God wanted him to do after God himself had a bit of doubt. As we go through the temptations we have to see that the Devil is not offering Jesus anything that he either wants, or needs, if he’s the son of God.

Temptation the first: turn the rocks into bread. (Matthew 4:2-5; yes this story is mentioned in the others, by John only briefly but I’m just going with the most detailed of them) So Jesus is in the wilderness for around forty days before the devil shows up. A human being can survive for about that amount of time without any food, provided that they are properly hydrated. In other words, without food or water they last around a week, with water a month. With both, well 80 years or so. This is from the BMJ (British Medical Journal), so it’s science. It means that Jesus brought at least water with him, or else the Devil is going to be talking to a corpse. The faithful will reply, “well of course Mr. Atheist he would be hungry but the point of the wandering in the desert is to suffer.”

Fine, I get that. Here’s the thing, Jesus is a human at this point so he needs food to live, or barring that if he wants to go Ghandi (starvation record: 21 days) he needs water. So either Jesus has got some stash of supplies or he’s already using his supernatural powers to sustain himself. If it’s the former the Devil’s offer is pointless because Jesus already has some food (even if he’s brought nothing but has found food and water), if it’s the latter the Devil’s offer is redundant as Jesus has already done so. Remember this: if, at any time, Jesus has used his godlike powers to stay alive he’s cheated and it’s suffering in the same way that not watching the latest episode of Mad Men when it’s been recorded in your DVR is suffering. Without water, in the desert he’s dead within a week. Remember it’s not just the heat of the desert sun that kills you, it’s the cold of the desert night that gets you too. Jesus, is hopefully prepared with flint and steel, or some blankets. They don’t call it the desert because there’s a lot of stuff there, quite the opposite in fact.

I’m interested in the Devil and his temptations. So the offer from the Devil is, quoting from KJV, “command these stones to be made bread.” Turn the rocks into food. Curious temptation, since Jesus, as stated before, must have some food with him. Maybe, he’s run out and is legitimately hungry, fine. Jesus refuses telling the Devil, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of god.” Alright, but you still need the bread right? The line makes little sense. Is he saying that I can go without food provided that I feast on the word of god? Or that bread doesn’t feed you if it is unaccompanied by words of god? I’m confused. Let’s say that it means the former, then Jesus isn’t suffering for surely his own word can sustain him in the desert—given that he’s god. If he’s man/god hybrid and sustaining himself, again it’s only suffering that is self-inflicted, like listening to a playlist from ten years ago. If he’s man, than he can’t do what the Devil is offering. Why doesn’t the devil show up with the food and some water? It’s also curious that Jesus just doesn’t do it, given that he’s had no problem changing one substance into another when it’s time to get boozed up (John 2:1-11). There’s also the inconvenient point that the wandering Israelites (forty years in the desert, for those missing the allusion) being sustained not by the word of god, who was directly talking to at least one of them, by the food sent directly to them from the sky (Ex16:1-36, Numbers11:1-9). This is different for only two reasons: one there is no devil in the manna situation and secondly the Israelites wanderings weren’t self-imposed like Jesus’ here. Otherwise the only temptation is that the Devil is asking Jesus to do something that he ought to be fully capable of doing, that he has done in the past, and that he will do in the future (the loaves and fishes things, other miracles).

Temptation the second: Jump off this building. (Matthew 4:5-4:7)

At this point the devil realizes no one is getting any bread, so he takes Jesus to the pinnacle of Orthanc, I mean the Temple, and tells him to jump for it is written, “he shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone.” Now here the devil is quoting psalm 91: 11-12. Psalm 91 is all about how the faithful will not be harmed for god will protect them. This applies not only to throwing themselves off of high buildings but also from arrows, pestilence, adder bites (is this where snake handlers get their bullshit inspiration from?), etc.

There’s a lot to unpack here so let’s start with the first issue: this isn’t a temptation. At the very least a temptation has to deal with something that you want to do. Jesus wasn’t looking to jump off a high place, the Devil brought him there and then told him to jump. I would have told Old Nick there the same thing, “no.” The only difference is that I know that if I jump there going to be cleaning me up with a hose and a shovel. Jesus, well this one is tricky, it’s not a temptation that much is clear, but what is the Devil getting at here? There’s a reason that religious people don’t like skeptics and that is because we tell the world “think” while they tell the world “believe,” when we ask for proof they ask for faith and when evidence contradicts faith the throw out the evidence. This little scene is what we do, ask for evidence. The Devil is saying to Jesus, if you are right and the truly (or verily) the word of god will protect you, then jump and let’s see what happens. Jesus replies, “thou shall not tempt the lord your god.” Again, I ask what is the temptation? To jump or to display one’s godhood?

IF Jesus is the son of god, and the “prophecy” must be fulfilled, there must be some divine intervention that is going to come across to save him. Jumping can’t harm Jesus because he hasn’t been executed yet. He cannot die here, the Devil is asking Jesus to confirm the truth of the written word of god but Jesus won’t do it. One might be able to argue that, again, he’s only not doing it because the Devil is asking him to do it…which is awfully petty since the action he’s asking for is amoral. The final point to ponder with this confusing “temptation” is what the Devil hopes to gain from this. In Goethe, he gains a soul in exchange for imparting knowledge but here as well as in Genesis, he doesn’t seem to gain anything from his temptations other than a swift rebuke. Even if Jesus were to jump and the angels carried him up, what would that gain the Devil?

Temptation the Third: Kneel and I’ll grant you the kingdoms of the world. “Again (?), the Devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all of the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and Saith unto him, all these things I will give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8-9)

I suppose the “again” could refer to this being the third trial that the Devil is attempting, but I would think that the inspired word of god wouldn’t be so clunky. The Devil offers Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world for a little kneeling, think the Xerxes offer in 300 only on top of a mountain. Before we even attempt an offer let’s take a look at the scene. Robert Ingersoll writes that no god is ever more advanced than the civilization which created it, meaning that god often times has as much information about the world that his followers do, never anymore, and sometimes less. It really throws a wrench into that omniscience property that is often ascribed to this god when we see something happening that violates our knowledge of the universe. Not like a miracle, an interruption of the normal laws of nature, but something that is impossible. There is no point on the Earth or above it, in which you can see all of the kingdoms of the earth and their glory. This is me being generous as well, I’m not looking for a spot where we can see the castles and kings, just a spot where the Han, Roman, Indian, Mayan, and Kush can all be seen at the same time. It’s not possible and is especially troubling when you realize that the Babylonians, Egyptians, and Greeks had all established a spherical Earth by this point. Apparently the Jewish/Christian god missed the memo. The mountain does not exist, nor can it exist. But that’s something for the literalists to trouble themselves about. Everyone else can just see it as a metaphor.

What can’t be a metaphor is the offer itself. The Devil can’t be testing the faith of Jesus, because Jesus has none. He knows that god is real and that he is god, or however we want to describe it. Faith is not having evidence, knowledge is what we get from evidence. I don’t have faith that my daughter exists, I know it because she is right in front of me. If the trinity is a real thing, which millions of Catholics and other Christians believe it to be so, then the Devil is asking Jesus to betray himself. I’m not sure how one does that, can’t god just take it all back afterward? If he can’t then there is a higher law that even he must follow, if he can than it really doesn’t matter.

Even more striking is the offer itself, bringing us back to Machiavelli in the beginning of this post, “All of the kingdoms and their magnificence.” The Devil, like the Carthaginian envoy, is offering something that he can’t have…or can he? I have said it earlier, the Devil isn’t a liar he comes through when he offers something. Adam and Eve received exactly what he said they would get from eating the fruit, knowledge of good and evil. If someone wants to quibble on the fact that he held back the knowledge of what would happen, I can quibble back that the serpent and the devil aren’t the same person and that we only get that impression from Milton. So if we ignore what Paul says in Romans 4 (the one that states that women shouldn’t be allowed to learn) about the deceiver is there any reason we have, based on the evidence of the Devil’s actions that he wouldn’t deliver? Again we are left with two options: either he is lying to Jesus or he isn’t. If he is lying then it’s not temptation, because Jesus has to know that the Devil can’t, like Carthage, give to Rome what is already Rome’s. So there’s no harm in doing so other than exposing the Devil for being the great deceiver, and an unsuccessful one at that. If he’s not lying then the whole world is screwed because apparently the Devil owns or controls all of the kingdoms of the world. Now, what kind of shitty god has let this happen?

Has God bequeathed the stewardship of the world to the Devil despite the claim that human beings have dominion over the world (Genesis and Psalms 115). Was it merely for the purpose of this temptation because that seems awfully arbitrary or was it for much longer? If the Devil really has control over the kingdoms of the Earth than is it really moral for Jesus to tell him no and not take them back? Sure one could say that through free will it would be impolitic for Jesus to accept kingship over them, but if a supernatural being such as the Devil already controls them free will is a moot point. Apparently, if we are to believe that this is temptation, then the Devil must be in possession all of the kingdoms of the Earth, that includes the Herodic Jewish kingdom.

The reply of Jesus is inane, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thy serve.” So Jesus adds an “only” to that phrase which means that the Devil is a better bible quoter than he, but the phrase fro Deutoronomy is meaningless unless one already subscribes to the book. What really seems to be occurring in this passage is that the Devil is looking for proof and isn’t getting it. It’s a smear against reason that is only thwarted with bible Testament quotes that do not offer any sort of explanation nor rationale for why one ought to refrain from tempting the lord and just serve.

Finally it doesn’t seem as though there are three temptations. The first and second certainly aren’t and if the third is, then we are all screwed.

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The Saints of Atheism part I: Thales of Miletus

February 11, 2013 Leave a comment

“All is water.”—Thales

Beginning our series we start with a person whom Aristotle claimed was the beginning of Philosophy. Thales of Miletus doesn’t come up frequently, in almost any context. If a person knows who Thales is, it means they have taken more than a couple of Philosophy classes. Since the point of this series is to focus on the contribution of a person to the argument against theism, it unfortunately means that we are going to have to skip a portion of their lives. This is because I’m not writing biographies and the point is to focus on their reasons, not their persons. I bring it up now because with Thales it doesn’t really matter, we don’t know that much about him. We have a couple of anecdotes, including one in which he fell into a well because he was so focused on the stars. While interesting, and often told to belittle those of intellectual dispositions who should just get a real job, with Thales it’s interesting.

Anyone can call themselves a philosopher, just look at half of the people contributing to “The Secret.” Anyone call themselves a historian when all they are merely conspiracy theorists. It takes discipline and focus to rise above giving pithy horoscope advice. Being wrong isn’t as important as the method, and Thales would display that method applying it to derive conclusions from reasoned patterns in the real world. He also began to believe that there was an underlying substance to all things, a substrate or in the Greek: an arke. Thales studied the stars and the moon to make observations that there was a pattern to their movements—a predictable pattern. Nature, itself seemed to have a pattern to it. Now, accounts very on some of the stories attached to Thales (for instance, the well story) but two things are generally agreed upon; the first is that in studying the movements in the heavens he was able to predict the eclipse of May 25th 585 bce. The second story that is widely accepted is that in a period of drought he bought (or rented) every olive press that he could at a price predicting that the next season would not be a drought. He was right and made a considerable profit, which Aristotle commented was a monopoly and applicable to a wide variety of situations.

It was in the latter story that Thales answered the claim that philosophy is worthless. Now, these stories are fine, but what is important about them is not the specifics. It is rather that in each case the natural world is explained by the patterns of the natural world. The Greek religion, like all religions, believed that the world was governed by the divine. In their case, a polytheistic world in which one god has jurisdiction over some aspect of nature. An eclipse is under the control of, say, Apollo the sun god. If he was unhappy, he blocked out the sun (for a couple minutes). There was not, however a way to predict this, unless one was really good at measuring the worthiness of sacrifices. The growth of the world’s crops, or purely just the olives, was governed by another god and the success of the crop was based on prayers. If the prayers were not worthy, or good enough, or the sacrifices not sufficient; no crop that year, etc. It may seem silly to our post enlightenment world, the idea still persists. People are asked to give prayers for the sick, it’s the same mechanism at work, if the divine feels that it’s worth it or whatever, then the person gets better. Thales demonstrated that the world was not subject to the whims of the gods.

Thales is the first to seriously break the stranglehold of religion on the explanations of the workings of the world. The tides came in and then they went out. There was a pattern to it, and the mysteries of nature were solvable by seeking answers to the right questions, not by the number of visits to the temple or the number of goats one sacrificed. He didn’t create the scientific method, but he did apply it in defiance of his religion, the world was knowable, and this is why he is the first of our saints.

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Being an Atheist XII: A Different Look at the Morality Argument

February 4, 2013 Leave a comment

The Morality argument runs like this: if I am an atheist than what is keeping me from murdering people other than fear of the law. To which I reply: nothing, everyone I have ever wanted to murder is dead. The difference between me and the other person is that I don’t want to murder anyone and they apparently do. Typically the argument spins downhill from there. The person that I am arguing with eventually covers all of the squares in atheist bingo, mentioning how Hitler was an Atheist (even though he wasn’t), that religion is good for society (without explaining how), etc. Historical arguments get thrown in and I try to pause the argument so that I can look up the information, which is usually wrong according to them. On my side the argument is pretty cliché too, I am not going to pretend that it isn’t. I like to stay away from biblical contradictions because to use them actually betrays my point that it’s all completely made up, but sometimes I just can’t help it. I usually concentrate on the lack of evidence, and how things in the bible don’t meet my criteria of evidence and then stay on that. My main example is always the Herod example and how no writer of antiquity who mentions Herod II mentions the massacre of infants. What I would rather talk about are the underlying philosophical and theological concepts that, to me, prove that there is no god, or that if there is; omnipotence isn’t a property that we ought to ascribe to it.

Next time a theist comes at you with the morality argument, instead of doing the usual: i.e. pointing out all of the injustices perpetrated in the name of god do something else. That is, ask them what morality is to their religion. Now this is going to be tough, because you are going to have resist every urge to lay out the usual traps. When you ask what morality is, they are going to huff, they are going to roll their eyes and this maybe for one of two reasons. The first reason you need to address right away, because they are going to say something like, “oh of course you don’t know what morality is, what atheist would.” If they walk away feeling vindicated, you kind of won. Because the person that would walk away after this isn’t someone you are going to want to have a conversation with anyway. On other hand, you have also kind of lost, because they are going to continue their life thinking that even the worst religious person is still more moral than the best Atheist person if only for the reason that the one time they decided to engage someone that thought different than they did, they found out their ridiculous stereotype was correct.

The best response is a little manipulative but that’s just a bullet you are going to have to bite. Just look at them and say, “help me understand where I am wrong.”

It’s good, especially for those religions that have an evangelical bent, because it plays on their stereotype that Atheists wish they were wrong and all have a secret desire to go to church. This however doesn’t work with cults like scientology who seem to not have any moral system. The second response is more typical of a reasonable human being, they will explain that certain actions are moral and certain actions are immoral. What you have to do is concentrate on that distinction and show the person how it really doesn’t mean anything. This will be the crux of the argument.

When they say that murder is immoral, or stealing is immoral, or that giving to the poor is moral; it’s important to remember that they aren’t telling you what morality is or isn’t. They giving examples of things that are judged to be moral. It’s very important to insist on this fact, while at the same time nodding in disappointment that you really hoped that they would be able to give the answer. If you get a really good answer and you are happy with it, then great, you found a real prodigy since most people cannot answer this question. The greatest minds in the history of the world have fallen short of coming up with a fool proof method of determining morality. By stopping them from their list of examples, you also save the tired circle of them giving out really obvious examples that everyone agrees with, ‘Is murder wrong?

The problem is that morality for a theist is tricky. If murder is immoral, why is it immoral? The response, will probably be, because it is forbidden by god. Ok, while still nodding your head. The nodding part is crucial because it communicates that idea that you really want to know if they have the right information. If you are a decent human being, you should want to know this information as well. It shouldn’t be fake. If some person were in front of me and wanted to tell me the truth about the nature of morality, and I was sure that he wasn’t loony (because this happens more often to me than you might think with crazy people), I would want that information. The idea is that your mind cannot be closed off to the possibility that you are wrong because then you are a zealot and you are no good to anyone.

The follow up question then is this: is murder wrong because god forbids it or is murder wrong and that is why god forbids it? With the word “murder” being substituted for whatever other immoral actions that we can think of: stealing, rape, lying, etc. The devil is, as they say, in the details. The question is asking whether the prohibition on murder stems from the whim of a divine being or whether it comes from someplace else. If it is the former then morality is nothing more than a passing fancy of a divine being. Now while this makes us, human beings still subject to the divine will it does a unique thing to that divine person. It renders the statement, “god is good” meaningless. This is because the property of “moral” or “goodness” is an evaluative property that must come from somewhere other than the thing which is being evaluated. If everything that a thing does is “good” or “moral” then those words do not apply to that thing. It’s a redundant property that is more like describing how round a circle is, it’s part of the definition of being a circle.

More importantly, if murder is wrong and that is why god disapproves of it, then we have a new problem. This time, we are forced to realize that morality comes from a different source, one that even god/s are subject too; since morality in this case comes from something other than the divine. The Theist can reply that they believe that reason is the divine in which case you both agree and the discussion is at an end. The personal god, the one with a distinct identity is the one that can’t work with this concept.

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