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An Atheist Perspective: “Mystery” Is a Tough Sell to a Child

August 27, 2013 Leave a comment

I sit down to eat dinner with my four year old daughter and she asks me, apropos of nothing, if god is her father, Mary is her mother, or is Mary just the mother of Jesus. She gets these odd little ideas that I then have to spend the rest of dinner trying to straighten out. Some background information is necessary so that at least we can understand where the question originates from. She asks these questions because on occasion she is taken to church, it’s rare, but it does happen. Both sets of her grandparents are practicing Catholics, my wife is a believer, and on both sides she has the extended families that are also Catholic. The information is there, she knows what the “Our Father” is and who it refers to even if she doesn’t know the words. She doesn’t attend regular services since I have no inkling to go given my Atheism and my wife doesn’t go because of a rather graphic description of the crucifixion one priest dwelled on during the children’s service (it frightened our daughter when she was three). Getting religious questions from her is a rare occasion but not so rare that I feel blindsided.

Despite what religious zealots would have their viewers/followers/listeners believe I don’t get upset when she asks these types of questions. I also don’t roll my eyes and wonder why someone would ask suck a question; I have the background to answer them and am glad that she would ask me the question rather than someone else. I explain the most honest way I know, that some people believe in certain things and that they believe that god is their father in the same way that a distant ancestor is their father, that Mary is only Jesus’s mother according to them and she really has little to do with the birth of anyone else. The reason I am glad she asks me is not because, like those zealots think when they want to pretend they are under attack, that I want to teach her that religion is stupid and that she should hate it; but because I would rather her have the option to consider something’s possibility before she gets shut down with the phrase “it’s one of the mysteries.”

Among the religious phrases out there, this one is the most infuriating to me because it represents a cessation of inquiry indicating the exact line where reason conflicts with what people have been instructed to believe. As a kid, I was never mystified by mystery I was merely told that there were some facets of Catholicism that were labeled mystery and that was it. One of the prayers contained the line “let us [something] the mystery of faith,” and then we mindlessly repeated the Christ is born, died, risen, come again story. It never seemed like a mystery, it was just something that happened and if something happened how could it really be a mystery? Catholics repeat this every Sunday (or they used to until they made some changes a couple of years back) and every Sunday that I went I did so because I was supposed to. Historical events are only mysteries when we don’t know what happened but here we are supposed to know.

“Mystery,” religious terms, is just a blanket word that gets used when someone doesn’t want to explain what is going on. I’ve been on her side of the conversation before and it’s bullshit. If you ask how it is that the Lions in the ark didn’t eat all of the North American White Tailed Deer (or how they even got there in the first place) well, that’s a mystery too. Actually no, it’s not a mystery. The mystery has one of two answers: either god changed the physical and biological nature of every large carnivore on the ark and then switched it back for some reason or it never happened. Those are the only two choices available; to call it a mystery is to cloak those answers in the veil of ignorance so that they don’t have to be thought about. Miracles are to be believed not understood, which is why they are called mysteries. The explanation is in the hand of god, the understanding of the explanation is in blind belief.

The gods exist, and they all live in the black hole of ignorance. Where our ancestors didn’t understand is where their gods were, which is why the domain of the gods shrinks with every discovery. This is also why the importance of “mystery” is so stressed.

“How can god be Jesus and be Jesus’s father?” she asks. It made for some interesting dinner conversation, a break from the sagas of the imaginary family that she knows, but here I’m caught. I can’t really explain why people believe that and this time it seems like a genuine mystery. The trouble is that it’s not a genuine mystery, only how can I explain it without getting into the odd historical codification arguments of the Christian religion. For instance, if Jesus is god then why does he continuously talk about his father? It’s almost as if he’s just a regular guy, but then all of the miracles happen and he is claimed by some to be god. A lot of the mystery here is in trying to reconcile what is claimed of Jesus the man versus what he claims in the book. There has to be a Trinitarian doctrine or the whole thing looks made up. Am I going to explain this to her? No, because it requires me to grab one of my bibles (I have three not counting the ones on my Nook) show her Jesus says and then show her why that confuses some people. Instead I perform an experiment, I point to two items on her dinner plate. Let’s pretend they were potatoes because I don’t remember what they were, and I ask her to point to two potatoes. Then I ask her if there are two or are there one? She answers two (with the happiness and pride of a child that’s answered a question right): I ask her if the two potatoes could be the same potato. After hashing out the various details about how I don’t mean that they were part of a larger potato, or that they came from the same plant, etc. she answers no, two things cannot be the same thing. That’s silly and I agreed.

We can talk about parts and wholes, but that’s not what the Trinity is about. At the age of four I let her rational mind take her in a heretical (to some) direction, but isn’t the mere asking of the question enough to make her a heretic anyway? I hedged the explanation a bit, saying that a good portion of the world believes that such a thing is possible with the divine but it requires a person to suspend their thinking a bit accepting that such a thing cannot be explained. I won’t tell her it’s a mystery because it’s not. It’s a metaphysical impossibility. If a thing exists, it exists on its own or it has two different names for the same thing. I’ll follow philosopher Max Black to hell on this if I have to—it’s two things they are different in some way that makes them not one thing. It’s quite simple to me the logic of the thing. Belief, I explain, makes the whole thing subjective, that it is personal and internal, but it’s up to each person to make that decision for themselves. I’m not going to make up her mind; I’m only going to tell her to think about it. To do otherwise, to tell her what she should or should not believe with regard to such matters is to punish thought.

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An Atheist Perspective: Questions From a 4 Year Old or How Children Make Admitting ‘I Don’t Know’ Difficult

August 20, 2013 Leave a comment

Perhaps the toughest aspect of Atheism is explaining the varying religions, theologies, and beliefs to my four year old daughter. There are questions that I cannot answer that religious people can because they can regurgitate the things that were taught them. Invoking an actual “Deus ex machina” to come in to save the day, think about it, any question that can be answered through the invocation of a deity must now have a detailed explanation or I have to admit that I do now know the answer to the question (I could also lie, but I’m not willing to do that). I never thought that this would be a problem until she started asking questions that I wouldn’t think a four year old would even think to ask. Not to make claims on the superior intelligence of my daughter, but I think that most people who endure the question and answer sessions with their children are often blindsided by a preternatural observation from someone that can carry on a detailed conversation with a fake monkey.

I’m educated enough to be able to answer most of the questions that she asks me and I figured, before she was born, that theological questions could be answered with a shrug of the shoulders along with the honest, “I don’t know.” Right and wrong do not need supernatural grounding, the physical universe has physical answers and the glory of technology is that I can look up whatever I do not know. We read fairy tales and weird stories and if she wants to think they are real then I have no trouble letting her as long as it does no harm or doesn’t scare her too much. I’m not the type of person that would rob a little girl of fairies and sprites if she wants to believe in them. I also know however, that she wouldn’t believe in them if we hadn’t told her either directly or through other mediums that they did exist. We do the major holidays Easter, Halloween, and Christmas because those days are religious only if you choose to make them so. Conservatives are right about one thing: you can do the entire Christmas season and completely avoid the Jesus part very easily. This is the fault of business and commercialization rather than some Atheist plot, so complain to Macy’s and Walmart not to me (although that would break the business first model of Conservative Republicans). If you want some proof for that claim just look at what stores are doing to Hanukkah—a once relatively minor Jewish holiday that is now being given special notice so that stores can sell to Jewish kids.

As an Atheist parent, I can do whatever holiday I want. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness. I can have one holiday (July 4th), no holidays, or all of them; it simply is up to me and I am not obligated externally. If, as Penn Jillette claims, every day is an atheist holiday then every day is given the same importance. It’s like he detractors of Baruch Spinoza claimed, if you believe that everything is god than you believe that there really isn’t a god (note: I don’t agree with this claim but it’s a popular one delivered against pantheists).

One of the real difficulties with Gwendolyn is that I have to explain why everyone doesn’t share the same belief system. I live across the street from a Synagogue, and within easy walking distance of three others (a new one just opened recently near me). Within walking distance as well are three different Christian churches (Episcopalian, Catholic, and Baptist) of different sects. The café that Gwen and I frequent, is near a funeral home and another Catholic church; if the parking lot is full we have to talk by both the church and the funeral home. Despite what the religious right would like us to believe, religion is everywhere and while I mentioned that a Jewish ministry opened up recently near me—none of the aforementioned congregations have closed. I would have to go out of my way, way out of my way to avoid them if I had any inkling to do so. The religious right may wish to pretend that Christianity is under siege but it’s clearly not, any random person that you might meet on the street is more than likely going to be some form of Jesus worshipper—and this is on the liberal coast too. My Catholic background prepared me for some of the questions that she might ask. No matter what sect of Christianity a person might claim they are all reading from the same book and the stories aren’t that different from translation to translation. I can handle a lot of them, and a person ignorant of the nearly two thousand years of Christian history might even think that everyone is a member of the same religion, that’s how minor most of the differences are.

One afternoon there was a funeral coming out of the church and going to the funeral home (literally across the street); Gwen asked me why people were buried after they died. What am I supposed to say? I ask, because it’s not an easy question to answer without appealing to tradition. I tried to explain that Catholics get buried because the religion mandates this as a correct manner of disposing of a dead body, I started to get into the resurrection part but it still confuses me. Why am I going to need a body if my soul is eternal in heaven? Isn’t this superfluous? Is the body going to come back at the age you died, some other age, or the age the body actually is when the world ends? What if I suffered with a horrible disease for ten years and then died; do I get the body before the disease? I have the same questions she had. I answered the best I knew, that people tend to act the way they were taught by their parents. If their parents believed you needed to be buried then you probably will do the same. If your parents believed in a soul that goes to god but still believe that the body needs to be preserved even though that seems completely unnecessary then you probably are as well. The trouble with kids asking these questions is that you have to be prepared to answer some really strange ones and she wanted to know if everyone thought that.

Me: No, honey they don’t.

Her: So who is right?

Me: No one really knows, and anyone who says they do is wrong. They hope or they believe but they can’t know.

I launched into an explanation about how every culture everywhere does something with the dead. Most have an afterlife, I mean aside from producing some kind of alcohol it’s the closest thing to a universal constant that we have. The Vikings buried their dead with all of the belongings as well as the Egyptians. The Egyptians weighed your soul against a feather, which she kind of liked because the gods all had animal heads and they built the pyramids so that it made it cool as well. The difficulty was in explaining why we don’t do the Egyptian thing anymore, or why everyone doesn’t do the same thing. It would be easier wouldn’t it?

Of course it would be, but that simply isn’t how it is. People have different beliefs because they are taught to believe different things. Those beliefs are part of their identity, and getting a person to change their belief is extremely difficult and in some cases, dangerous. See, it’s not that she is being raised to be anti-religious, a prejudice that theists suspect of non-theists, but that there is no such thing as a question that should not be asked or that because someone has a different view does not mean that they are necessarily wrong (or right) but that in matters of afterlife and the supernatural there’s no real evidence, there is just differing points of view. All I can do with my kid is answer and not pretend that I know things I don’t know. I can only teach her to use her brain and her reason, encourage the questioning; because if there really is a sin it’s shutting down the inquisitiveness of a child.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Arbitrariness (or Selective Evidence)

August 13, 2013 Leave a comment

You can’t argue with a literalist. It’s just not possible, they are too far gone into the depths of unreason that pointing out contradictions, impossibilities, and/or absurdities is a fool’s errand. Take for instance the contradictions in any/every religious text: indicating specific examples where the text either contradicts itself or the world as we know it doesn’t matter. It’s either reduced to it being a test of faith or hand waved away with the cop out, “a non-believer wouldn’t understand.” To some extent, they are right, I am an unbeliever and I don’t comprehend how one could hold two contradictory thoughts in their mind whilst claiming that they are both true. Aristotle recommended that a philosopher ought not to argue with those that deny the truth of triangles, if they deny a basic truth about geometry there is no common ground within which to begin a dialogue. I am not so certain that we ought to never engage them, for instance my new plan is to point out to protestors that Matthew 6:6 has Jesus telling his followers to refrain from doing what these people are doing in Jesus’ name. Sometimes it’s just fun to mess with people. That aside this post is not about how to argue with literalists, it’s about the moderates.

Among atheists the general consensus has been that moderates are the closest thing we have to allies among the religious people. For instance atheists don’t have a position on the legality of birth control, or the general mandate from the Healthcare Reform Act about how insurance has to cover up. In this we agree with most religious people who enjoy having sex, but do not necessarily want to roll the dice on a pregnancy every time they want to have sex. Most people understand that the according to the religions which address sex and marriage, the sin is in using healthcare not having it provided. Banning access just denies people the choice; and most Americans want choice. It’s the loud zealots that want the rest of us to pretend that sex is something we should pretend we don’t like, or that orgasms don’t feel good (who am I kidding, great), and actively seek to prevent other people from engaging in it themselves. Most Americans use birth control, and most Americans are religious. Of those religious people, most of them are members of a sect of Christianity which is the big one as far as prohibiting fun sex.

What makes this troubling is that at least with the zealots we get some consistency. A literalist is going to believe a list of things, and that list is going to be uniform. I don’t agree with it, I think they are fools for believing, and I believe that a great amount of suspension of disbelief has to be occurring when they read the list of beliefs that was given to them by someone else. One of the problems with the moderately religious is that they have to believe certain things are literally true according to their book and other things are up for interpretation, e.g. no Catholic is taught that the world was created in seven 24 hour periods, but they all believe in the literal truth of the prophecy in Isaiah. Where the delineation between what is acceptable and what is not? How do we clearly define the difference for a Muslim in the words of the Quran that are Allah’s and the ones that were made up by Mohamed? I have devout Christian friends that will side with me against a Biblical literalist on say the anachronism of Matt23:25, the immorality of Tim6:1-5, and the flat-out incorrectness of Gen1:16. These types of arguments make for strange bedfellows. It’s a recognition of a common foe—the kind of person that thinks bronze age writings make for good computer age morality.

This becomes a difficulty because the moderate still has to make a leap regarding something—anything really in order to maintain their status as a person of faith. The Christian must believe in the prophecy of Isaiah as being literally true, devoid not only of context but of it being inconsistent with the gospels, i.e. Jesus can’t be of the bloodline of David as Hebraic bloodlines are traced through the father and the two (contradictory) genealogies we have is through Joseph’s ancestry and he isn’t related to Jesus. Buddhists have to believe in similar absurdities such as virgin birth and the literal truth of a prophet of a religion that preceded Buddhism. I could go on.

By claiming that there is some wiggle-room in interpreting the direct divine inspiration (and authorship in certain circles) the adherent is effectively saying that the goal posts for truth are mobile. That they move according to what is so far unproven but eventually gets proven. When a legitimate question comes up that can be ascribed to matter of faith, we are told that it was never meant to be taken literally. I was always taught that Jesus literally raised Lazarus from the dead. The guy was dead, buried in the tomb, and wrapped up in the Jewish tradition; then Jesus came along and raised him from the dead. Alright fine, but when you ask, “well then what happened to him?” You get told that the story is an allegory or a metaphor; and not a history.

The moderates are the better of the two. Make no mistake of that, I would gladly trade all of my experiences with Biblical Literalists for the moderates simply because the former are reasonable rational individuals. I just wish I could understand the formula for believing what is literal versus what is merely allegory.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: God v. Pharaoh

August 6, 2013 Leave a comment

In the trials of history, surely there must be a place for the case of the Pharaoh against the god of the Hebrews. It’s a difficult thing to consider since there is so much controversy over who exactly the Pharaoh referred to is since no independent archaeology or Egyptology can determine which of them suffered the plagues. While the evidence is mounting that whomever built the Pyramids for the Egyptians were not slaves, but hired contractors, we can make the assumption that if the story is true then it is certain that Hebrew enslavement gives the Jewish people a complaint against the Egyptians, but, assuming that the story is true the Egyptians have the larger complaint against their god. For the sake of this post we are going to assume that the story of Exodus 3-13 is an accurate history of something that actually happened.

The story presented has a new Pharaoh coming to the throne who has no regard for Joseph and his people. You have to get caught up for the end of Genesis where Joseph performs various services for the previous Pharaoh but for whom the next (or a couple generations later the text is confused at this point) has no memory or no sense of loyalty to the Hebrews. In fact, because of their multiplication they begin to fear these invaders who have their own language and customs. That’s just how things work with large immigrant populations who refuse to adopt their new country’s language and customs, the older population wants to kick them out, or in this case stop their reproduction and enslave them (not that we could draw any parallels to current times).

This first thing that the Hebrews could have done, had they really wanted to was simply pack up their shit and leave, if they wanted to of course. See it’s unclear from the bible, the inspired word of god, that the Hebrews wanted to leave in the first place. The Egyptians did have a royal hold over them, but that wouldn’t be any different if they were in Persia, Sarmatia, Babylon, Gaul, etc. The Egyptians made them work, but again they had to earn their keep. As far as the mistreatment goes, the withholding of healthcare from the pregnant Jewish women was the Pharaoh’s plan to limit their numbers but the Jews had their own methods of child birth. The response is to cast the Hebrew boys into the river when they were born, but not the girls. While this is a horrid command, it makes little practical sense given that the Hebrews still practice polygamy. Marrying the daughters off is still going to be a buyer’s market. At this point though, God has stepped in making sure that the babies are not only born but also born healthy. He could have just delivered them from Egypt directly but he seems to have limited himself to fulfilling the role of midwife. The only other mistreatment was when Moses observed an Egyptian whipping a Hebrew whereupon he kills the Egyptian. Until that point, there seemed to have been some sort of symbiotic relationship between the Jews and the Egyptians. It’s not until god decides to meddle that Pharaoh really steps up the oppression.

When Moses approaches the Pharaoh, his adopted father we must remember; Pharaoh becomes obstinate and decides to force them to makes bricks without a supply of straw. In other words they are assigned a task without the benefit of the raw material with which to complete the task. It’s an impossible task, but the reason it’s given is because Moses has upset the Pharaoh by asking for a three day jaunt—for all of the Hebrews—into the desert. If no one interferes, that is everything is the status quo, the Hebrews become a population of Egypt. That’s really the worst case scenario, let me repeat—it wasn’t until Yahweh interferes that the real oppression begins. In fact, this is pointed out by the Hebrews themselves who curse Moses’ meddling. The relationship was apparently fine before, but now the Pharaoh thinks there is an insurrection afoot and doubles down on the whipping and such.

Then come the plagues and the magic tricks. This is an interesting point in the story because of what it proves. God tells Moses, who tells Aaron, to do a series of magic tricks in order to convince the Pharaoh that it is time to let the Israelites go. The first is the staff-snake trick. The power of god is apparently put into Aaron’s stick so that it turns into a snake. The priests of the Egyptians do the exact same thing! Now there is the little anecdote that Aaron’s snake eats the other ones, but what does it tell us that the priests of Egypt are able to do exactly what the emissary of the emissary of god is able to do? That the Egyptians possess magic as well? Possibly, they are able to change water into blood just as Aaron can, in fact it is said that these priests were engaging in the magic arts as well. Who then, is giving the priests this power?

Pharaoh remains unimpressed by everything that Moses and Aaron can accomplish, mainly because every time they pull back the plague, he changes his mind. E.g. the frogs infest the land, Pharaoh is annoyed he agrees to let them leave to worship god (because at first this is the only requirement, which is funny because it seems like God is actually lying to the Pharaoh and as no intention of returning them. It’s ok though there is no rule against lying yet.) but as soon as the frogs leave the permission to leave is rescinded. This repeats itself through the first five plagues: frogs, flies, blood, gnats, and pestilence. The pestilence is odd in that it kills only the animals of the Egyptians, but then the next plague gives those animals boils. I’m confused in that why would God waste his time on inflicting dead animals with boils? Seems like a bit of overkill if you ask me. The boils offer us a turning point in the plagues; they are effective enough that, again the Pharaoh decides to let the Hebrews go. Even when the boils are gone he still wants to get rid of them…that is until God interferes and hardens the Pharaoh’s heart. At this point the Pharaoh wants the Hebrews out, but god makes him make them stay so that he can satisfy his own bloodlust. It happens again after the plague of Locusts, and again after the plague of Darkness. After darkness it is especially worrisome as the Pharaoh literally kicks Moses and his people out telling them that he hopes to never see them again. If it weren’t for Yahweh really having an itch to murder to some first born children of Egypt it ought to have ended there. Despite how we remember it, and how we are all taught it, god (for he is not worth capitalizing at this point) makes the plan to murder the first born children of all the Egyptians, not only the aristocracy who are actually in charge of the decision to enslave the Hebrews but also the children of the lowliest slave. After he makes this plan, only after he makes this plan does he force the Pharaoh to become obstinate. In fact, chapter 11 of Exodus tells us that the Egyptians were well disposed toward the Jewish people and that Moses held a place of honor; this is just a cruel god flexing his muscle in order to satiate a blood lust.

What crime did the son of the slave girl commit other than not being born a Hebrew? They are both in servitude, they are both in oppression, yet this god whom we are supposed to worship decides that an arbitrary blood line is enough to warrant the murder of innocence. Not only that, but there is no distinction of age. Is not the Pharaoh himself a first born? It is said that even the first born of a criminal in the dungeon would die by the hand of god for the crime of being born to the wrong parents. This is the story of the plagues of Egypt. A story much crueler than the servitude of the Hebrews.

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