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An Atheist’s Perspective VI: What’s the Harm?

July 30, 2013 Leave a comment

Being an Atheist is a lot like being an iconoclast…in some ways it is literally like being an iconoclast. Not buying into one of the religions of the world means that all of the statues and iconography of those religions could actually be torn down and it really wouldn’t matter to me in any metaphysical fashion. It may be the loss of an artwork or a piece of history but that’s all they encapsulate. Yet being an iconoclast in the figurative sense is similar to clicking “like” on a cause in Facebook. The thought is there, but as far as doing anything goes…well I’m sure someone else is on that. In our pluralistic society, we’re all iconoclasts in one sense or another. In the same way that we are all atheists toward the religions that we don’t believe in we are tearing down the meaning behind the statues, icons, and ceremonies that other people put stock in.

Curiously, something happens when people find out that I don’t believe in any of it: they get offended. Their offence is mystifying to me as it causes me to wonder whether or not they are offended at other people’s beliefs in different religions. A Presbyterian, for example, puts just as much faith in the authority of the Pope as I do; but somehow I’m different in an insulting way to some Orthodox Catholicism. Sure we’re both heretics, but I’m somehow more of a heretic if that’s even possible. Philosophically this doesn’t make sense. My existence, my lack of belief in religion, and the lack of evidence sufficient to prove the existence of god should have absolutely no bearing on whether or not a random person is religious and believes in a personal deity who is interested in their life. It’s like the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” that wasn’t a Mosque and wasn’t located at Ground Zero—its existence has no bearing on what happened in 2001. Nor should it have any effect on how people view the former site of the World Trade Center. The proof of this is that the building opened and absolutely no one paid any attention to it.

The question that I want to explore is: how can my denial of a belief harm that belief? A belief isn’t physical thus it is incapable of being harmed. Certainly if someone has a belief that they sincerely put faith in, my denial of that belief shouldn’t have an effect at all. Unless therein lies the game: that it’s not true believers that I upset, it’s the dilettantes or those who feel that they ought to believe. Those that have doubts and my perspective is confirming that their doubts are not unique but that others have come to those doubts as well. It’s one of the reasons many of those in the Orthodox religions fear multi-culturalism in that by exposing their followers to the beliefs of other people, they might realize that a person can be happy independent of one specific religion. This is the reason that the Catholic Church was against public education in the US for a time. They didn’t want Catholics to be mingling with Protestants.

In a recent Pew Poll a little over 30% of Americans thought that, despite the mandate from the Constitution, there ought to be an official religion of the United States. The only question I ask is, “fine, what religion?” When the guffaws settle and the answer is, “Christianity, obviously;” I then ask, “no, I mean which one?” While Christians like to lump themselves together in one large group, that only works when they argue with those who aren’t Christian, e.g. a Calvinist, a Baptist, and a Catholic will all side together arguing about the true faith against an Atheist like myself or a Jew or a Muslim, etc. Yet when it comes to which Christianity is the true Christianity the split between the sects is as important and vicious as it is between the religions. A Hindu and a Christian have little in common…until they come into debate with a person that thinks neither of their religions are true then somehow a person like me has offended them.

Some of those people, who have looked beyond the fact that my not sharing their belief cannot harm their belief will somehow bring in that I have offended their deity. This is as ridiculous as it is absurd. First off, if this deity is as perfect as they say it is (and they do say so) then it is impossible for me to harm it in anyway. Simply not believing in this almighty being could not in any way affect it. It is absurd to even think that a lowly mortal such as I have that kind of power is to place me above the deity. Secondly, to think that such a being needs my worship is ridiculous as it ascribes incompleteness to what is claimed to be perfect. If that being needs worship then it is lacking and suffers from some form of narcissism which compels it to need such worship. On this world we call that a defect and any god I would believe in would be beyond such defects.

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An Atheist’s Perspective V: Evidential Standards

July 23, 2013 Leave a comment

I have been trying to focus his blog primarily on issues concerning religious belief, atheism, and anything else that could reasonably be included in the spectrum covered by either the term “theology” or the phrase “philosophy of religion.” That being said, other subjects are certainly going to have to be included, e.g. politics. The problem with bringing politics into these entries is that there are certain people that are going to automatically assume that I am a _________, because of what I wrote. Let me get this out of the way now, I’m unaffiliated with any political party. I do not identify myself with either the liberal camp or the conservative camp. For the most part I am anti-conservative on social issues because I don’t believe it’s the government’s responsibility to, for example, be involved in marriage in any way. I’m anti-liberal because I don’t necessarily think every corporation is evil nor do I think that socialism is the way to go for all of society’s ills. Because of the subject matter involved in this discussion I may tend toward criticizing the American right more than the left, but that’s because I’m an atheist and the right panders to the worst form of religiously intolerant theocrats outside of the Taliban. Not all Republicans do this, of course, but it’s their extremists that think I am an enemy of the United States because I don’t praise Jesus.

I wrote the above as a disclaimer because I am going to use a rather infamous tape as an example, Mitt Romney’s “47%” speech. I am not concerned with what he said, the content of the video, or whether or not he was right or wrong. That’s immaterial to this discussion. What I’m concerned with is the reaction to the video when it was made public. One of the reactions was to claim that the source of the video was the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Party Researcher. I am strictly concerning myself with this response.

First off, any student of informal logic ought to be able to tell you the name of this fallacy. The response is a simple ad hominem, meaning “against the body.” A person commits this fallacy when, instead of addressing the argument they merely insult or deride the person who made it [in this case James Carter didn’t create the video but he was the one that made it public]. Claiming that the video didn’t matter because of who released it, ignores whether or not the video was authentic (which was never disputed), whether the message that the presidential nominee spoke in the video was one that he wanted to communicate (again, never disputed—only that he wished he could have said it better), or any other subject which is relevant to the argument made in the video. It merely states that what is on the video is irrelevant because _________ made it. It is why Ad Hominem is a fallacy and not a legitimate means of argumentation.

I bring the video up, because we have a similar situation with the sacred books of the world. In these cases it is the opposite; they are inspired, so no matter what is actually said in these books they are by default true because of their origin. Now, it doesn’t matter which book we are talking about, they all make the same divine claim whether the deity did the actually writing or inspired the writing is irrelevant here. What matters is that they are divinely inspired so they contain the truth. The problem is that there is nothing that necessarily relates “inspired” with “true.” To be inspired, a work could be entirely fictional. For example I consider the works of Shakespeare to be inspired, but I do not consider them to be historical records any more than I consider them to be divinely inspired. Certainly the William had really found his niche in writing works that have transcended the passing years but they are no truer than the works of any other playwright.

Truth is about the relationship a thing has to objective reality; it has much less to do with craft of that particular work. The works of Euclid, are certainly true with regard to 2d plane geometry, but are they inspired? I can barely keep my eyes from watering when I try to read the formulas but they are true. Whereas Beowulf is engaging but clearly a work of fiction. The problem is further increased when we are claiming that a work is divinely inspired. If the divine is to be considered perfect, or incapable of error than any work authored by it (as some bible literalists will claim) ought to also be perfect. Yet none of the “divinely” inspired works are ever in a more advanced state scientifically, culturally, or socially; than the time period that they were written in. To be clear this is true even when the work in question is contradicted by non-inspired works that turn out to be more accurate.

Aristotle’s De Caleo speaks of a spherical earth and gives an argument for why this must be the case while biblical writings contemporary to it speak of a four-cornered earth. Surely we may not want to claim that divinely inspired works must be books of science, but wouldn’t we at least want to claim that they don’t get something so basic wrong? Would it be so hard for the divine to not create a false belief? Or is this another Abrahamic test of faith as segments of the Intelligent Designers want us to believe? The source of the argument does not matter if we are judging truth, what matters is the statement itself. Like the 47% speech, the words on the video mean more than who uploaded it to YouTube. At least with the Romney campaign they didn’t try and twist the facts, they openly admitted what was said. Unlike say defenders of sacred book literalism that try and twist every word and phrase into fitting the actual truth.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: Thoughts on the Devil

July 16, 2013 Leave a comment

I am most familiar with the devil as a kind of boogey man. Something that I was told was bad. It was a being that scared little kids or a character in some of the stories that I had to read. The most important of the biblical stories always featured the devil—and now, in retrospect it seems odd that God’s drinking buddy figures so prominently in all of the Abrahamic religions. It’s almost like we need the devil to fulfill some purpose.

From the fall in the garden (although I’m not convinced that the snake is necessarily the devil, we get that not from theology but from Milton), the book of Job (problematic because the author that started Job isn’t the same author that finished it), the temptation in the desert, and at the end of the Revelations where “a devil” is thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur (Rev. 21:10, it’s not “the devil” mind you but simply “a devil”). Run through that list and everything that is taught to kids is in there, at least for the Catholics. Every one of those stories is a central block for the pillar of the Catholic faith and they all feature the devil. Not just include but feature him.

Even stranger is that the devil doesn’t have an origin story in the bible. He’s just always there. Timeless, ageless, just like the god he apparently opposes. The role of the devil seems to be like that of Loki of the Norse Sagas—a tempter, one that in opposition to the Abrahamic God uses guile rather than force. Milton claims that he was cast out for not wanting to kneel before man, because if god orders you to worship a false idol you better do it…and/or for disobedience. Origen writes that the devil is a fallen angel based on Isaiah, but this fallen creature is clearly the ruler of Babylon and clearly also a man. The problem with the figure of the devil is that as punishment for his actions he’s sent to hell. Now, that kind of makes sense—he does the worst crime an existent being can do without harming another creature so he must be punished. Yet, what kind of punishment is it that he receives?

Hell, again that makes sense, but according to modern Christian stories he isn’t really being punished there. I mentioned in a previous post that hell cannot exist because, briefly, it actually violates the principles of justice that we hold for the supreme god it can only serve as vengeance. We know there’s a lake of fire, sulfur, etc.; but the devil isn’t in either of those. No the modern scary boogey man devil is actually granted the role of king or warden of hell. He gets to go home on the weekends, possess bodies, tempt people into sin. If he is being punished for his disobedience then why is he granted so much wiggle room on where he can go and what he can do when he gets there. I’ve the ministers talk about the devil walking the earth, influencing heavy metal music, the usual stuff to poison our moral natures. The point, to reiterate, is that if the devil is in prison how is he able to get away with causing 9/11, Katrina—oh no wait, that was god punishing us for our immorality just ask Pat Robertson. If the devil stalks the earth that leads us to one of two possibilities: either hell is a shitty prison or god is a shitty jailer.

This is a semi-modern phenomenon. Dante Alligheri puts the devil locked in the ice of lake Cocytus. Machiavelli, in the Belfagor, places a different figure in charge of Hell the god Pluto. The Devil we assume is locked away in the back, but the focus ought to be on the fact that these two Florentines understood that if the devil is in Hell, he can’t be in charge of it. Certainly it would be foolish to give him an army of like minded souls for which they serve to corrupt the people of the material plane. It just seems that the worse you are the better you are going to do in hell. It’s reminiscent of the last two seasons of Oz, where the maximum security prison was more like a men’s club than a place of punishment. Goethe and Milton elevated the devil into a character had actual power, but it must be remembered that these are characters in fictional works for the purpose of entertainment. If, say, Christianity as laid out in the bible were literally true then there would be nothing to worry about because everything is fated to work out just fine. It’s why there was no real tension in the Left Behind series, we knew how it was going to turn out. Yet, even the characters in the book couldn’t understand that certain things had to happen in a specific order (plus those books were terribly written with horrible characters and a horrible interpretation of Christianity).

Does the adversary have a chance? What has he accomplished in the Abrahamic tradition? If he is the serpent in the garden then he got Eve to eat the fruit by telling her the truth. He was allowed to torture a man at God’s behest in the book of Job, and really that’s about it.

The devil’s role is to serve as nothing more than a boogey man. It allows people to justify terrible events without having to blame the supreme being for their occurrence. Yet, when that is done all that is really being said is that there exists a force that is, opposite and equal. It’s a rehash of Zoroastrianism with its good and evil forces. This is all without getting into the strange creation that is the devil to begin with. A benevolent god ought not to create something whose only role is that of a betrayer, it doesn’t stand to reason.

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An Atheist’s Perspective III: Justice

July 8, 2013 Leave a comment

Among other things, the principle of justice necessitates that it must apply to all people equally. This rarely works out in practice but we aren’t talking about justice as it occurs but justice in theory. It’s typically difficult to define justice, and if 2500 years of written thought (preserved that is) is any guide, we probably aren’t going to come to a positive definition of justice. It’s quite easy, though to come to an agreement on situations that violate the principles of justice. What’s even more apparent is the unfairness and injustice of various aspects of the world’s religious creeds. That religions have rules which reflect an early form of tribalistic identity should not be too controversial of a statement, the god of the old testament even admits of the existence of other gods, and nothing evidences this more than the various regions and ethnic gods that have emerged in the world’s history.

In some religions it’s expressed, like the various taboos of the Abrahamic tradition; in others, Hinduism for instance, it’s not so obvious. The problem with such regional tribalism is that the religions are also making a claim for those outside of the tribe. One of the first things that a person will find odd about different religions is the difference between what is allowed and what is forbidden. If the god of one person is the one true god then its rules are the rules for everyone, not just the one particular group. Further, this religious tradition is claiming that everyone in the world is probably sinful based on the rules that they were breaking without even the awareness that they were breaking those rules. It’s even worse for those religions that require belief for salvation, every person in the world is eternally damned if they don’t believe in Jesus according to the interpretation of several forms of Christianity—I wonder, does that include those people who never even had the opportunity to hear about him? Perhaps this is why I have had friends that went to seminary and turn Pagan. Pagan religion, as Machiavelli points out, tended to look down on the weak and ineffectual, but they never punished the non-believer. They only punished those who directly insulted the gods and non-belief wasn’t one of those insults.

A lot of the religions of the world seem to have various food taboos that can make a person “unclean.” Being unclean gets you damned much quicker than murder. Typically forgiveness comes much easier for those that harm other people rather than those that have happened to eat the wrong thing. Let’s imagine that a Muslim gets stranded on an island in which there are only wild hogs to eat. Is the will of Allah that the person commit slow and painful suicide by not eating them? Or, if you are Catholic and it’s Lent then it is pretty important that you understand when it’s Friday. Ignorance of the eating rules doesn’t save you, if the Hindus are right then I am unclean for eating cows and have been unclean since long before I was even aware that there were Hindus. Same situation if the Jewish Religion is the correct one, or the Mormons, or the Muslims, the Buddhists, etc.

What about accidentally eating the forbidden food? Let’s say either a Muslim or Jew is eating a soup that everyone raves about and spits out a piece of fat from a pig. They didn’t know that pig was in the food, but is their god going to allow for such extenuating circumstances? Surely, they ought not to finish the food but should they evacuate themselves of what they have already eaten? The alternative is to make sure that everything they eat, and everything that they plan on eating does not violate some unnecessary and now, arbitrary food rule. This may not even be possible, at least in the US, where the FDA allows for the label “natural ingredients” to cover anything that isn’t artificially made. I’m not anti GMO, but religious people with food taboos better get to interpreting, because if some scientist slips a cow/pork/shellfish gene into an apple to make it taste better or something, you better be clear that god isn’t going to consider you damaged goods because you ingested an unclean chromosome.

Our Muslim on the desert island would be grappling with the issue of which does god forbid more: suicide or eating of pig?

Is this justice? Is this really what morality is concerned about? It’s easier to gain forgiveness for harming another person in these cultures than it is to get out of the stigma of being “unclea.” In Hinduism, if you are considered an “untouchable” the only way out is to die and be reincarnated.

All this is, is more evidence of the tribalism that one culture wants to indoctrinate into its members. It’s not merely that the others are different, it’s that they are less because they eat things that we do not. Two couples pass each other and a man says to his friend, “look there goes a rotten pig eater.” Meanwhile the woman from the other couple says to her friend, “Ugh, I can’t believe those people eat sea insects.” Now both of them can feel superior to the others knowing that no matter what happens the other people are going to hell.

Is god really so trite, so petty, so arbitrary that he must concern himself with our eating and social habits? Is it justice to render a person unclean for life because they ate the wrong thing? Is it justice to even have this as a rule? I will not pretend that moral goodness is instantiated in a being who would judge a person for breaking rules that they had no ability to become aware of. Nor will I pretend that a being who is the master and creator of the universe would care so much about so little a thing as the eating habits of its creation. It makes little sense and I reject that it has anything to do with justice.

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An Atheists Perspective II: The Questioning

July 2, 2013 Leave a comment

The advantage of the secular life over that of the religious life is that it is rather liberating to understand that I can question anything without feeling bad or guilty about it. Too many times in my upbringing I was told that there were certain questions that one was not supposed to ask (e.g. if being angry is bad or fighting is wrong then how come Jesus did it when he threw the money changers out of the temple or if gambling was bad how come there was Bingo at the church?). Values, statements, ideas, etc. everything is up for grabs in the secular world, as long as an idea can be proven or supported with evidence there is nothing wrong with holding that idea, or perhaps it may even be correct to say that a belief or idea that is not disproven can be held. There’s no sin, nothing wrong with asking the questions or doubting the established ideas as long as, of course, those questions or doubts are reasonable. For example, it is unreasonable to claim that the Earth is flat, and unreasonable to question those who believe that the Earth is round after they have explained why they know it is round. The problem with orthodoxy in every situation is that it stifles progress and religious orthodoxy is the worst at allowing progress in either scientific or social measures.

As we see in the United States that the Supreme Court has struck down the Defensive of Marriage Act (hereafter “doma”), a ridiculous law which legitimized the idea that marriage was under attack, that the right of homosexuals to marry each other is now socially accepted. The reaction, by the most religious of commentators, was that this was somehow a bad thing. That god was going to be angry at the United States or that Jesus was crying. Despite the fact that the marriage of two strangers has little to no effect on anyone else, the very idea of two women marrying dilutes the meaning of the word marriage. The definition of which has so many interpretations in the Christian Bible that it must be admitted that the idea of “traditional marriage” is made up at best and ignorant at worst. The more and more I see social conservatives plant their flag against homosexuality the more and more they are going to be wrong—just as they were wrong with suffrage, slavery, and the civil rights movements.

As the world moves forward, the need for change is all- encompassing. To change something scientifically requires either new evidence or a new argument. To change something religious takes a literal miracle or a clever spin of the old languages. The doctrine of the trinity wasn’t established until 1274, so how did this doctrine come to be? Reinterpretation of the old book, which means that all Christians prior to the 13th century have a pretty heavy sin on their hands (if I remember correctly, trinity denial is a mortal sin). When the Mormon church decided to desegregate themselves, it wasn’t because the racist that founded the religion (Brigham Young, the second president of the church) and those that ran it could admit that they were wrong, no it was special revelation that black people were considered equals. Prior to 1978, dark skin meant that the person bore the mark of Cain and was impure upon birth, now it apparently just means genetics. The arbitrariness of the divine is mysterious to me.

Yet to ask why god wants these things is somehow impolite or taboo. Why would god kill one million Ethiopians (2 Chronicles 14:9-15)? Why can’t I eat ham/bacon/lobster? Why do women have to remain quiet and subservient to their husbands? The list goes on with an increasingly arbitrary and petty divinity that allows the worst forms of abuse until one day he thinks to himself, “oh wait, maybe I don’t want them to own each other anymore,” and tells some obscure person in a cave somewhere.

No matter how omnipotent and/or omniscient this god fellow is, it is always lagging behind two things: knowledge and morality. The god of the Jews/Christians/Muslims believed that the world was flat and was the center of the universe, while the Vishnu Purana (Hindu text) claims that the sun is closer to the earth than the moon. The same can be said of social issues, currently homosexual marriage which is a mere legal technicality which orthodox religions oppose for reasons that I am unclear of, just as they were opposed to the social acceptance of equal rights for women and the abolition of slavery—until they, all of the sudden weren’t. This leads me to the opinion that the divine is nothing more than a band-wagon jumping populist who switches sides every time it becomes expedient to do so.

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