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An Atheist’s Perspective: An Unholy Alliance

May 27, 2014 Leave a comment

The town of Greece NY, a few miles from my home, recently won a Supreme Court decision that would allow them to continue to open their town meetings with religious prayer provided that the prayer is not exclusionary (e.g. no praying for the souls of X because they aren’t in religion Y). While I emphatically disagree with the majority opinion, especially basing it on an appeal to tradition; I think the consequences of that decision are more than what the town and/or the religious people that consider this a victory are going to be willing to accept. One of my problems with the decision centers around the idea that “freedom of religion” also means “freedom from religion.” The state is not allowed to make you adhere to any particular religion, nor is it allowed to make you adhere to any religion at all. The Constitution, in article Six expressly forbids the use of a religion as a requirement of any public office or trust in the United States; not to mention the first Amendment’s prohibition on the respecting of a particular religion by Congress in particular which has then been extended by the 14th to government in general.

The Greece case was brought about because two women (one Jewish and one atheist) felt that the opening prayer was exclusionary. I for one find it more troubling the Greece town board thinks that only a god being can solve their issues, but as I don’t live in Greece I don’t know how bad it is there (it’s not that bad), rather than trust in their own abilities at governance. In general this country is populated by Christians. The last poll puts Christianity at around 75% dominance with all other beliefs and non-belief filling out the remaining 25%. So if a Catholic has to sit through a minister’s prayer, it might be strange but it won’t be foreign, and vice versa. If you aren’t a Christian, then the appeals to Jesus can be quite off putting a feeling that most people in the US won’t understand unless they attend a Jewish wedding or similar situation.

Aside from the Greece ruling, there have been other lawsuits regarding religious symbols–all of them Christian, in public squares and every time the ruling by the respective courts is roughly the same: all or nothing. It’s why you can’t teach Creation in schools: it’s a myth favoring one particular religion. And while I would rather have the “nothing” be the result I understand the “all.” Since the backbone of this country protects the citizen from religious favoritism by the government we end up with all religions being equal in the eyes of the law.

We must remember that the point of the establishment clause was not to protect Christians from the oppression of Islam, Atheism, or Judaism. Rather the genesis of the establishment clause was to protect Christians from Christians. Thomas Jefferson’s “Wall of separation” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists was addressing a concern that the Baptists would have their right of free exercise stripped by the majority religion of Connecticut at the time. It’s worth repeating that the term “Christian” refers to not one belief system but to many. It is a recent phenomenon to lump all of them together as one religion, but in the time of the revolution until some point in the 20th (I’m working to identify it) century it would be very strange if we considered a Mormon, Catholic, and a Baptist to all be members of the same religion. Sure they all believe in a Jesus figure, but Mormon rites differ from Catholic and Baptist rites so distinctly that it seems wrong to say they are members of the same thing. It’s one reason that Presidential candidates John Kennedy and Mitt Romney had to specifically address their religious differences.

Why does any of this bear mentioning? Because most people think that the minor differences among Christian sects, as well as Jewish and Islam, are going to be satisfied with statues such as the ten commandments or that appeals to the god of Abraham can’t be too offensive since these majority religions all pray to the same being. A Christian paying for and placing a statue of the ten commandments ought to be just fine, it’s part of their religion (minus the graven image part). Yet we’ve seen in Florida as a response to the manger scene at the state capital, a festivus pole erected. Now, in Oklahoma in response to a Ten Commandment statue we see a submission from the Church of Satan a Baphomet statue in honor, their words, “Our monument celebrates an unwavering respect for the Constitutional values of religious freedom and free expression.”

Their point is that if one religion gets a statue, then they get one as well. I for one, get their point, and like the decision of the Supreme Court in the case against the Westboro Baptist church’s right to protest a funeral, this is one of those tests of free speech. The Oklahoma government rushed a ban on statue submissions but it doesn’t matter as their submission made it in before hand, one of the troubles with hindsight laws. Attempting to ban their goat headed chair statue is essentially saying that state of Oklahoma respects one religion and not another–a move forbidden by the law.

What concerns me though, is the support of the church of Satan by other atheists. The position that I assumed I would hear the most was that it was another statue celebrating another religion going up in the public square, and then a bunch of diatribes against superstition. Part of what I expected came from my own ignorance. My experience of what Satanism is, comes primarily from my experience in watching television shows in the 80s and the moral panic that ensued as the now discredited and falsified stories of ritual abuse by Satanists. I expected this to be another religion, albeit a heretical Christian one (given that stereotypically the believe in Jesus, God, the Bible etc. they just worship the other side of it). Modern Satanism, at least the group proposing the statue, is more like Buddhism with regard to gods, i.e. they don’t believe in any substantive deities. We must also realize that the so-called “black mass” of the Satanists can be attributed to a Christian fear mongering in the book “malleus maleficarum” or “hammer of the witches,” which described it as the behavior of witches, Satanists, and humanists. It has more akin to the blood libel against the Jews as a slander rather than an actual reported event.

All that aside the problem is one of image. Those in support of the statue were more likely to support it because it represented a troll against Christians, a way to stick it to them. This should not be representative of atheism since it represents anti-Christianism being so specific in tone. It’s the exact brush that the extreme right wing likes to paint atheists with anyway and now a whole bunch of assholes just gave them a new can. It would be like supporting a Muslim image going up because that sticks it to the Republican state representative who helped get the commandment statue–and it misses the point just the same. The reason to support the Baphomet statue is one of free speech and free religion, not anti-Christianism or any kind of hate. This action may do more to shut down the erection of statues than the court cases because it is a direct test of those who say they support religious liberty, and now we will see if they are hypocrites or not.

PS. It should be noted that no new statues are going up in OK due to an official suspension by the OK government due to a lawsuit by the ACLU to remove the Commandment statue.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: A god’s anger negates its omnipotence

May 20, 2014 Leave a comment

The last couple of posts I deal with De Ira Dei and the anger of god. Mostly I countered it with the Epicurean ideal–a philosophy among the four classical schools that I favor the most, it’s pretty consistent internally with only one sticky problem–that of free will. As a quick reminder the Epicureans did not fear the anger of god(s) because their belief was that if the gods were so perfect there would be nothing for them to get angry about. Their minds would be above and beyond the petty annoyances of us mortals and whether or not we lived or died, paid them homage or heresy; it would not bother them one bit. Not only that, but the evidence of the world doesn’t bear it out either: the good and wicked both die in sea storms; they both succeed and fail in life if there was a god that cared this would not be the case. 

Another of the four classical schools, the Stoic, also believed in the impossibility of the anger of the gods (I should note that I have a bit of a dilemma here: I don’t know whether or not to use “gods” or “god.” The Stoics argued about a single divinity but argued in a polytheistic society so I may bounce back and forth a bit. Nevertheless, their criticism applies to any personal god that can be imagined) but for a different reason entirely. Like the Epicureans they believed in divine perfection, but unlike them they believed in a god that was active in the world–a hand of providence to use a more modern parlance. Their god however was not vengeful or angry, it is impossible that this be the case but for a very different reason and it relates to their view on what exactly vice was. 

The Stoics were determinists, that is a philosophical term for someone that does not believe in free will. There are two kinds of determinists: hard and soft. Hard determinists believe that everything is fated, all material and thought it pre-ordained. Soft determinists believe that physical causes are ordained but allow the wiggle room for thought. The Stoics lean more toward the latter, every choice you have made is ordered by fate, but how you mentally react to that choice–emotionally, is up to you. This is where vice enters into it morally. See, moral choices are about attitude not action. If you are having a hard life, but you maintain a good disposition about it, you are a good Stoic. Conversely, if you are a miserable person who is constantly chasing what they cannot have or wishing that the way things are were otherwise you would be an immoral Stoic. When I teach this outlook, the free will issue usually turns my students off, they simply don’t like not choosing their own life. However, the value of Stoicism is to teach the student that accepting fate will make the person much happier than wishing the world was different. Anger for the Stoics is a vice because it represents the person unwilling to accept the nature of the world. We get angry at events because they are counter to what we would like them to be rather than accepting that the world is a certain way. 

For example, whenever the first snowfall of the year hits, everyone on the road drives like an idiot. It’s almost as if they had never seen snow before, and every time this makes me angry. Why? I know it’s coming, and I know that the people on the road are going to drive badly. What a good Stoic would do is accept this as a fact of the world in order to lessen their anger or not drive that day as to avoid the frustration. People that complain about the cold in the winter or the heat in the summer are the same way: being angry at the weather is being angry at something that no individual can change, so accepting it is merely the only option since the individual is going to have to live through the weather anyway (weather not climate).

This is where god comes in. See the god in this philosophy bears a large similarity to the modern conception of the monotheistic religions–it’s the master of the world. Yet that mastery comes with its knowledge of fate and the universe. If god were to get angry about homosexuals (or substitute any of the religious offenses: infidels, heretics, pig-eaters, alcohol drinkers, those who do things on Saturday night, work on Sunday, get tattoos, or wear wool jackets with silk liners) it would mean that god has no mastery over his own expectations and emotions. It would mean that god expected one thing and got another which would deny the omnipotence characteristic usually applied. It means that god has needs that go unfulfilled. In short it means that god is no divine being but merely a more powerful king that sends his wrath down when we don’t do what is expected. 

It also means that god is more like Zeus, Jupiter, and Odin; than modern theists would like to admit in that he, too, is also subject to the whims of fate. Zeus was subject to the fate of the world, he says so several times in the Iliad referring to how even he could not prevent the fall of Troy, and Odin was subject the weavings of the Nords who foretold his death at Ragnarok. If god is to get angry and frustrated at my unbelief, it seems foolish to grant me that much power being able to anger him so. God does not have the mastery over us, his anger is evidence of this. 

The counter argument to that last point is that sin is allowed in order to give us free will. It’s a good point but only addresses the last implication, and something that I would rather address in a different post due to the length involved in the free will discussion (dissertations are written about this). While I am not necessarily partial to the Stoic view on life, it does offer some benefits and places in their divine being an actual divine outlook–one of beneficence that is incapable of anger. One that cannot experience the spite necessary to exercise vengeance. Which is exactly why Lactantius and those like him dislike this philosophy. 

An Atheist’s Perspective: Grading week

May 13, 2014 Leave a comment

Whenever it is grading week, I never wish so hard that there was a god, and I’m never so sure that there isn’t. 

Grading week joke. No post this week, too exhausted from reading students’ papers. 

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An Atheist’s Perspective: On the Wrath of God

May 6, 2014 Leave a comment

“All the prophets filled with the Divine Spirit, speak of nothing else than the favor of God towards the just and His anger against the wicked.”–Lactantius De Ira Dei 22.3

“If the gods did care, the good would prosper, and the bad would suffer; that’s not the way of things.”–Cicero quoting Ennius’ Telamon c.f. De Rerum Natura 3.79

“The fact is that one’s character, and the kind of life which one has lived, has no bearing on one’s good or evil fortune.”–Cicero ibid 3.89

The Epicureans popularized an idea that the deity would have no interest in human affairs. Their reasoning was that if these divine beings were perfect, they could desire nothing since desire is an emotion liked to a lack or defect–an incompleteness. If you are claiming that the gods want this implies that there is something they need, which in turn implies that they are, at the present time of the statement, less than perfect. The Epicurean gods had no interest, because Epicurus believed that in order to call them gods they would have to be whole and thus would be incapable of need and desire. They argued against the Greek and Roman Pantheons, the Stoic idea of Divine providence, and would continue to argue against the modern conception of divine involvement (which was taken from the Stoic anyway). 

The followers of Epicurus conceived a natural world wherein the laws of nature governed everything and that the supernatural had no place. An idea that is so objectionable that the believers in the modern theisms still argue against it. Never minding the usual arguments that the gods notice an individual prays, doesn’t eat forbidden food X, dresses a certain way, or helps their fellow man. The question is not whether the gods notice the good but whether they notice the truly wicked among us. 

The believers in this world seem to have an obsessive need for this occurrence. They need to believe that the evil people will suffer or that at some point they will end up suffering. In Antiquity on of the earliest tracts is Lactantius’s “De Ira Dei” or “On the Wrath of God.” In this book, he proceeds to argue against the two philosophical schools dominant in the Eternal City: Epicureanism and the Stoic school. Both philosophies are leftovers from Athens and thus the Pagan world. Rome, at the time, had just legitimized Christianity under the edict of Emperor Constantine. The persecution of various minority groups had just ended as well as the last persecution of Christians in the West. 

Lactantius believes the elevation of Constantine, as well as the death of the previous pagan emperors to be the evidence of the hand of a vengeful god exercising his wrath against those that have offended him. Lactantius, however needs to argue against these two dominant and, relatively ancient schools who deny that this is a possibility. The Stoics deny the possibility of their god being angry. Their reasoning was that god can only be benevolent and moral, the emotion of anger is a vice indicating immorality which cannot be logically applied to a divine being. The Epicureans were opposed to this idea for the above stated reasoning. The problem that Lactantius has, is that he doesn’t understand either of these two schools well enough to argue against them, instead his book serves as an argument against what is nothing more than an extended straw man. 

I would suggest that his god is too small, too petty, and certainly too anthropomorphic to be truly divine and not worthy of the name “god.” Is it reasonable to assume that the god of Lactantius, possessing all of the power possible in the cosmos is remotely bothered by an individual who doesn’t follow his commands? Lactantius needs a blood thirsty tyrant god to justify the horrible fates of the non-believers and especially the Pagan persecutors of his fellow Christians.

Yet we can see the cognitive disconnect in his thinking. If his god was so powerful and so devoted to his followers as to crush a series of Roman emperors for not being Christian, why did he wait so long? If the execution of these Caesars was so important, and the persecution of the Christians so dire then why even allow it to happen? I do not wish to bring up these tired cliches that argue against the existence of god through the obvious existence of evil, but Lactantius’s book brings them up as proof that the Epicureans, in particular, were wrong. 

It’s an odd thing because Lactantius is writing this book to a confident, Donatus, who had been imprisoned for the crime of being a Christian, tortured nine times until his release. While Lactantius gloats about the destruction of the persecutor Emperors what must have run through Donatus’s mind when he read the words concerning god’s need for wrath, must he have thought that he too did something to offend or did he take it in stride that eventually his justice was served. The problem is that this is certainly a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the fallacy that attributes causes after the fact. The emperor’s died, because that is the fate that awaits everyone, perhaps they died badly (as some of them certainly did) but if that is the evidence of the wrath of god then what did the oppressed Christians do to earn the same wrath?

The same fate awaits the good as it awaits the bad. While the character of the individual is going to play some part in how they end up, i.e. a violent dictator meeting a violent end there is no supernatural hand in it. There is no wrathful god at the end of the line. The good suffer, the bad suffer, that is the way of things. If we want to ascribe some kind of divine providence to the fates of our enemies, it is mere wishful thinking. If that mind truly despised those it deemed wicked, those wicked people would not exist.