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An Atheist’s Perspective: The Problem with Theology

November 19, 2013 Leave a comment

The study of theology is a study within a circle. This claim of course could be made of all disciplines, if you don’t care about Biology everything that Biologists do is of no concern of yours. The difference between the two is that even if you don’t care about Biology, Biology still affects you. The discipline is such that discoveries in Biology affect reality. What is discovered in Theology stays in Theology. It can have no effect to those who don’t buy into the initial premise. This is unique among all other academic pursuits.

All other disciplines do not operate under the same condition. Physics, Chemistry, Philosophy, Literature do not begin with the premise, “if this were true then…” All of the debate, research, time is all under the assumption that the religion in question is true. We have to remember that theology is the study not of god, but of religion. It is the religion that forms the circle within which the arguments are created by which Theology itself is created. Without that circle there is no theology. No debate, nothing of which we can tie Theology to exists outside of itself. We cannot say the same of the other disciplines. Eventually the sciences are only false if our understanding of reality is somehow mistaken. While this is possible again, the point is that Physics affects us no matter whether or not we are interested in Physics.

An example here is needed. Recently I attended a debate regarding the Theological doctrine of corruptionism with regard to Catholic doctrine. Corruptionism is the idea that the personality dies after death. What the claim is, as far as I understood it, was that a person is a combination of their soul and body. Most people are under the impression that this is the case. The corruptionism debate centers on what happens to the soul when the body dies. Does it get help in some state of suspension between the moment of death and the final resurrection or is the person conscious in some way. Catholics believe the soul to be immortal but that says nothing about the perception of the soul or the person that it is inside. The corruptionist believes that the personality dies with the body is put in some kind of suspended animation until the End of Time. The opposite position is that of survivalism in which the personality survives inside the soul. This is the subject of the debate. Unlike some people in attendance, I was at least prepared to listen to Theological debates in a meeting sponsored by a religious philosophy club of which I am a member–mostly because I pay attention to the subject of things that I am going to attend (sorry, that was a personal rant that I needed to share).

I was unsure of how either side could be correct, given my rampant atheism. However, I can play the game and understanding the rules means that I can participate. One of the points of argument was that because a person’s natural desire was to survive death in some way that means that the survivalist doctrine was true. This of course is not evidence of anything, desire does not equal reality or else the Secret is a thing that we should all be interested in. The second is that even if it did, our natural desire to engage in sex is something that the Catholic religion purposely teaches us to thwart. We’re at best inconsistent, and at worst, arbitrary. However the issue is not whether survivalism or corruptionism is the case but rather whether it matters to anyone who doesn’t believe that the writings of Thomas Aquinas makes sense and the Christian Bible is based on reality.

To use an analogy, Theology is like the section of the library that has all of the chess books. The symbols in the books, the various openings, defenses, mid-game strategies, as well as the endings all matter to players of chess. If you do not play chess and have no interest in playing chess it is literally dead weight on the shelf. Not only does it not matter to non-fans there is no way that you could make it matter. The greatest grandmaster could write the most indefensible opening that would break the heart of Watson (the computer) but there would be no possible mechanism to give the uninterested any involvement in the discovery.

The point is that unless the base, the foundation, of theology is shown to be true, it cannot ever be contributive to society at large. There is nothing that Theology has given us that we could not have achieved if it never existed. Remove Physics from the world and civilization loses a great deal, take away chemistry, philosophy, and we can move society back centuries. If we exorcise Theology then what are we left with, everything that previously was. This applies to the study strictly of Theology, not religious figures doing work in scientific fields other than Theology, like monks working on genetics or particle physics discovering the mechanism by which traits are inherited or the Big Bang respectively. No, I am referring to Theology for the sake of Theology the kind that gives us the doctrine of the Ascension of Mary, in which the papal infallibility retroactively defined history.

The accusation is in the lack of being aware of the various intricacies of a particular religion does not in any way affect the individual. The great majority of people, even Catholics, are probably unaware that there is a survivalist/corruptionist debate and would have no idea that there would be disagreement on this issue. That could be deadly as the various Christian religions argued doctrinal issues such as that.

As far as I can estimate the study of theology serves put the fears of the faithful to rest. We may get some doctrinal pronouncements from the Theologists but the adjustments seem to be mere side effects of the ultimate justification: trying to reassure the faithful that what they already believe to be true is true. Consequently there is also the justification for the exorcism of beliefs which are judged to not be within the central canon of the religion in question. Otherwise there can be no justification for the subject.

One of the most important aspects of the Theology study has to be the doctrinal shift. When science or philosophy is wrong as a field we can simply not the mistake, note the method by which the mistake was made, and then note that while it is an unfortunate occurrence–we say that everyone who believed the mistake believed in an error. With Theology’s claim about the eternal soul makes everything different. Certain pronouncements affect who gets rewarded and who gets punished after death. When Tertullian established the doctrine of the Trinity in the 3rd century he established the Monadic Christians and the Praxeans as being heretics. Heresy does not give one eternal reward and instead damns them. This means they get the judgment on Earth of hell for their beliefs simply because a different group of Theologists determined that the Trinity was not a thing which really exists. Or if a person believed in the 1960s that Mary simply died, because of the fact that she was a human being, they would now have to change their beliefs or be in denial of the Catholic religion. This is the only real change that Theology can create. Otherwise it only serves to fulfill itself, it creates its own cycle of self-justification.

The Saints of Atheism III: The Laughing Philosopher

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment

Way back we introduced the idea that even atheism can have its heroes. No, I do not mean the members of what is known as “the four horsemen,” but rather the very foundations of skepticism and doubt. These are the people that advanced the idea that the world can be explained without an appeal to the supernatural, without filling in the gap of not knowing with the plurality of the personal divine. The first was Thales of Miletus, who was the first in Western Civilization to posit a natural explanation of the world that involved the natural world. He doesn’t get the nomination for being correct, his hypothesis–that all is water, is of course, wrong. His method is what made sense, that he used the observable to explain the world, as he did by predicting an eclipse.

This entry’s nomination is one that shows how close to the mark you can actually get with the power of the mind. This person would be Democritus of Abdera. Known as the laughing philosopher, he is also known by some as the father of modern science for reasons that will become apparent in a bit. He is best known, along with his mentor Leucippus (and a much later individual) as being the contributors of what we call “Atomic theory.” I don’t mean to claim that Atomic Theory of Democritus is sort of like our atomic theory in much the way that Empedocles kind of has a notion of evolutionary theory. The only thing that is missing is the empirical evidence substantiating the claim. Like Thales, Democritus only used the powers of observation to arrive at his conclusion. The fundamental aspect of the theory is that if anything that exists is made of material than the foundational thing that it is made of must also be material. While that sounds kind of obvious, anyone that believes in a supernatural origin to the universe does not believe this. They believe literally that there was nothing and that their divine made something out of it. Democritus understood that only material can make material, and that at some point there must be a point of material so small that it cannot be broken down further into smaller pieces. These ultimate blocks of matter would be un-cuttable, or in the Greek “atomon.”

This rules out gods as being different from us in construction. It also rules out the soul as being different as well. This represents a problem that will plague the history of thought until now. Not the existence of the soul (although that’s an entirely different issue) but the interaction problem of how an immaterial substance can interact with a material substance. In Democritus’ formulation there exist only two things: material and immaterial, and immaterial is nothing–the void. The void is that which the material exists in, the atoms float around in the void interacting with each other. These atoms must be partless unable to be dissected into smaller parts. They have different shapes by which they hook into each other and these clumps form into all that exists.

Under the atomic theory of Democritus, if the gods do exist they exist as material beings just like everything else. This is important because while religions (modern and ancient) posited the physical interactions of the divinity, they offered no mechanism by which this could happen. The only explanation given is…well, magic, I guess. Literally they use the deus ex machina. The powers of the gods literally manifest themselves to move the plots of the story along. Democritus’ theory provides at least some consistency in how the interaction ought to take place, the gods are material, their powers are material, and thus everything works along with the matter of the universe.

This view of the world makes things simpler because it shaves off extraneous entities that require further explanation. Democritus wasn’t wholly correct. Dreams and thoughts were constructed of certain atoms that produced the images in the minds of the people. This would of course be necessary because the only alternative is these images are made of void–which is an unbearable consequence. In this view of atoms constructing images he may not be right but he’s not necessarily wrong. Another influence of him is that this is still a matter of debate whether consciousness is a product of material or something else. If it is something else then we have to solve the interaction problem.

I nominate Democritus because his reductionist view has hit the mark as close as any philosopher for nearly two thousand years. For explanations that transcend the role of spirits, souls, and ghosts. The atoms are the material of the world, the void is that which they exist in. Anything else needs to be proven prior to our assumptions. He is the true beginning of the modern scientific reasoning excluding the supernatural.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Punish the thought

November 5, 2013 Leave a comment

Children are incapable of understanding the big picture. I have a kid, I know this to be true. As wonderful and awesome as my little five year old is, she is incapable of seeing the overall scheme of things. Don’t get me wrong, I do not fault her for this, it’s just a fact of life that until a person hits a certain age, or has a certain number of experiences they do not have the capacity to think beyond immediate consequences. Think about growing up, and how the primary reason you didn’t misbehave is because you didn’t want to get punished…well that or you just stopped being stupid about it.

Punishment is supposed to be unpleasant, that’s the whole point. When my daughter does something bad, I merely assign a punishment and then let her serve it out. Once the punishment is over, I hope that she has learned her lesson and that she never does it again. That ought to be it, and for the most part it is over with.

The problem with divine punishment is that we know, all of us, every single person on this planet, that it’s a lie. Yet we do it to scare children into behaving promising more punishment for things we have caught them doing, and punishments for every crime that we haven’t caught them committing. We tell them a story about an omnipotent deity who has nothing better to do than make sure that their transgressions go noticed, and we scare them with moral absolutes and divine retribution with stories like Noah’s ark, Sodom and Gomorroah (which for the record, the crime was being bad hosts and not sodomy); of a divine wrath that came down smiting the sinful and the unbelievers alike, etc. We don’t know the crime of Noah’s neighbors but it must have been something. We get an entire list of crimes against the divine in Leviticus, of which the Christian New Testament, the Talmud, and the Quran continue, expanding upon it until a country’s space agency convenes a conference to make sure that followers are praying in the right direction if they are out of orbit.

We know that this is a lie, because there is no earthly retribution. Cicero once remarked that if the gods were real the good would be rewarded and the bad would be punished and this is not our experience. We know that whatever the crime of Noah’s neighbors it must have been unimaginable in that we have seen crimes of utter immorality and horror that have gone unpunished by anyone other than fellow human beings. The greatest invention of Christianity is that punishment continues after death. This way uncomfortable questions can be delayed forever. God doesn’t care how many people you murder in this life, go right ahead, you can try and kill them all if you like and not a finger will be lifted to stop you. Eventually time will get the criminal, and then the real punishment begins: whether the person lived out the end of their days in a basement cell surrounded by filth or in a mansion built out of the bones of their victims. Endure the trials and sufferings of this world, for eventually the unjust are punished…I suppose.

This has to be the next logical step in crime and punishment. The cliché often goes that children crave boundaries. They don’t, what they need is to see where that boundary lies, and that desert is meted out justly. The myths of religion are confusing to kids because there is no rhyme or reason to it . Every time they get away with something they realize that the boundary doesn’t exist where they thought it would and then go out searching . At some point the gods really cared about sacrifice, obedience, and piety. Then, all of the sudden they stop caring.  

By moving the punishment from a physical thunderbolt throwing deity that really cares about whether or not you have tattoos and wear clothing of two different fabrics to a patient tyrant who bides their time before putting people in a furnace forever; they made even the act of being tempted to be sinful. The psychological torture of someone else’s actions now becomes a reality that we teach ought to be feared. A pretty girl walks by and it is a crime to look at her; a lie that causes no harm and most likely prevents harm is wrong because a divine moral absolute decides that it must be so, context or no context. Why have a person grovel in fear that the violation of superstition will earn them punishment for eternity? We start this pogrom so young that by the time they are adults the feelings of guilt are hardly able to be exercised.

This is not something that ought to be taught to anyone. Ethical thinking does not need a spiritual Santa Claus meting out presents to the good and coal to the bad. If our morality is so base that appealing to the passions in order to affect action is necessary then we are teaching stimulus response not morality. What we consider moral action ought to be done for its own sake and not the promise of reward. If something is immoral it ought to be considered immoral not because of our own self interest. The truly moral person does what they feel is right regardless of their own gain or loss. I have yet to meet a religion that chooses to begin and end moral instruction on this point, and yet is us atheists who contribute to the immorality of the world. Any moral system is superior to one that is reduced bribery.