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Atheist Perspective: Halloween

October 28, 2014 1 comment

Next to Christmas, Americans spend more money on Halloween than all of the rest of the holidays. Halloween spending is so great that no matter how early the Christmas season moves forward, Halloween will be its furthest limit. Christmas is the biggest one, Halloween is the second; and both of these holidays are religious in origin. Both of them, as well, have been secularized. It’s one thing that the “war-on-Christmas” crowd actually has right.

Halloween, I was taught as a kid, is really “All Hallow’s Eve.” It’s the night before “All Saint’s Day,” which is a day which honors all of the Catholic saints that don’t have their own special days. For instance, all of my Catholic education was through the Franciscan orders and we celebrated St. Francis’s holiday October 4th, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Christmas, and the some of the other days that my memory won’t call up (Immaculate Conception, and the Ascension were definitely two). So the way it works is that All Saint’s Day celebrates all of the Saints that no one has ever heard of…and those that you have. So Patrick and Francis get two days really, but the most important part of the day is that all of the holy people known and unknown are celebrated.

Halloween is the day before All Saints Day. Why is it such a big deal? Well, as a kid I was taught a couple of things: one of which is that when the saints are celebrated, the devil’s minions have their last night out. So it’s their party night and they get free reign somehow. I don’t get it, but that’s where the costumes come from. The costumes are supposed to confuse the demons, devils, and whoever else into thinking that the people wearing the costumes are demons, devils, and whatever else so that they don’t attack the person walking around. It’s their last night of freedom.

I would like to say that I doubted this story as a kid, but in truth I never really thought about it. There was candy and I liked candy. Whatever gave me the excuse to dress up in a costume and walk around after dark in my neighborhood to collect candy and see my school friends was just fine. Unless there was a school day, we never went to church. If there was a school day, we were forced to by the school which just meant shortened classes so it was really a win win. I didn’t realize then, but All Saint’s Day is a really big deal in countries with a greater Catholic population.

Aside aside (yeah that actually makes sense), Halloween is the last night the demons get to party. But why? Because the Saints are celebrated the next day and apparently their presence puts the demons in their place. Fine, let’s buy this part of the story. However what keeps them from going back out two days later? Why do we dress in costumes to confuse them when we ought to just stay inside to avoid them altogether? If these are demons possessing all of the demon powers how does a mask confuse them? Even when we grant the initial premise, the story isn’t even internally consistent. It raises questions that can’t be answered. Halloween, it would seem is just one those things that everyone does without thinking about it. You can’t think about it because these questions make it impossible to buy the story.

Halloween is a tradition. We know that anthropologically Halloween is one of a number of fall festivals, harvest festivals and equinoxes. We, in the Northern hemisphere begin our celebrations of the harvest, the store, and the coming night as the days get shorter and the darkness gets longer. Halloween is something fun to do before it gets too cold to be outside (although I grew up in Buffalo and have gone door to door in snow).

Does the origin of the holiday matter? No it doesn’t. A large amount of scholars believe that the holiday has origins in Pagan festivals anyway. Sometimes I get questioned about celebrating holidays that are religious in origin; Christmas, Halloween, Easter, Thanksgiving (even though the latter is purely an American holiday and not a religious one…I don’t like Turkey anyway). I usually respond that since the actual celebrations, the fun parts, have been utterly secularized I don’t see the point in not celebrating them.

I don’t believe in demons, I don’t believe in devils, and I don’t believe that eternal punishment gets those fantasy creatures a one-night-a-year-get-out-of-jail-free-card. What I do like is dressing up in costumes and taking my daughter door to door until she gets tired or scared. I like dressing up and going to a party with other people who are dressed up. Does it matter that at one point this holiday used to be religious? No. Does it matter that half the people that throw up on the streets during a parade couldn’t give even the most rudimentary explanation of who St. Patrick was or what exactly was the Potato famine? No. It’s about fun, and every demon, angel, zombie, vampire, that I see is more real on that night than any mythology or fairy tale can claim.

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Atheist Perspective: The Saints of Atheism–Xenophanes

October 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Xenophanes was one of the earlier of the “Pre-Socratic” philosophers. This group, was focused on discussing the source of all things or the “arche.” While their physical descriptions of the world vary considerably, one thing about them that they have in common is that they all denied the existence of the religious pantheon of their time. It is true that some of them make specific reference to various gods, they believed that nature has a cause that can be reduced to one, or only a few substantial things. Case in point: a couple of them believed in the four classical elements as being this source.

Xenophanes was a bit different. He claimed that all existence was divine–that all that is, is within the boundaries of a supreme deity. While this sounds like some brand of theism it is actually pantheism. The god here is not a person, it is not an acting agent adjusting what exists to suit some kind of divine plan. It is all and nothing can be which is not divine. It an idea separate from the Epicurean and Colonial deists, in the fact that while there gods also do not interfere they (or it) are entities distinct from the matter of creation. Xenophanes believed that this was impossible to posit gods meant to posit beings for which we have no evidence.

The crux of his theology is not so much the all-encompassing god, but rather that religious beliefs are based on unfounded suppositions. The Greek gods are spiteful, wrathful, lustful, and prone to behaving like people. Yet, the basis of this is where? In the stories of Homer and Hesiod, but their information is not knowledge but folk tales. The stories of Homer are based in an oral tradition for which we have no knowledge of origin. Is it likely that the origin is founded in some kind of fact? This is a matter of some debate, it is probable that there was a sacking of the city of Troy, but the events of the war that we know of are surely invented fiction. Yet these stories form the foundation of how we view the behaviors of the divine beings who had personal stakes in the outcome of the war. Is it reasonable to assume that all powerful beings really cared about the outcome of a regional dispute? No it is not.

The reason that we do so, according to Xenophon is that we create our gods in our image. In fragment 6 he writes that if Oxen, Lions, and Horses had the ability they would have created gods that looked like Oxen, Lions, and Horses (nevermind that the Egyptians created their gods in the image of half man and half-creature as well). As evidence for this he points out that while the Greek gods look like Greek men, the Ethiopians created their gods with snub noses and dark hair while the Thracyians created their gods with the image of red-hair and grey eyes (the latter I hypothesize is explained by the lack in Ancient Greek for a word for the color “blue”). The gods are merely super people, taking the personalities of the culture around us and giving them powers that mortals wish they had. Zeus is merely a lustful tyrant who cannot be killed, he represents the Greek kings who behave like Zeus (especially in the Iliad) but is really a mirror of their behavior taken to its logical end.

We continue to do this. The most popular depiction of Jesus is of a European man which would be quite an anomaly given that his family is Semitic. He would more resemble a native of the middle east than the Renaissance painters who popularized the images.

If we are going to claim that there is some kind of divine being, that being would be so beyond our senses that any kind of depiction of it is going to be inaccurate. This is Xenophanes main thesis, our gods cannot resemble us. Even the most powerful of our gods fall far short of perfection. A being distinct from the universe it has created has, in all religious beliefs, some kind of need or desire. It may be the desire for worship or the desire that we obey commands, but desire necessarily implies want and want necessarily implies a lack which means an incompleteness that is surely beneath the dignity of a divine being. This is not a god but merely a superior being and if it is a being which is offended or prone to wrath if we ignore its commands it is unworthy of our worship.

Our knowledge of the divine is incomplete. It must be, as Xenophanes points out in fragment 10 that no one has knowledge of the gods. No person is capable of it, if they are right it is purely coincidental and the individual making the claim could not truly know that what they believe is true. Despite their claim it is not possible.

Atheist’s Perspective: The Shield

October 14, 2014 2 comments

I was listening to the “Oh No Ross and Carrie” podcast today where they were interviewing two members of the Aetherius society. If you aren’t familiar with the podcast, the premise is that the two hosts undergo fist hand experience in alternative medicine, alternative science, paranormal, conspiracy, and religious movements and then report their findings. They investigated the Aetherius society several months ago reporting that it seemed to be another fringe religion based on new age-y beliefs using the episode to poke fun at the idea. This caught the attention of two members of the group who took offense to it, and then came on to the show to defend their religion.

The Aetherius society is another of, what I label, space-man religions. Like the Raeliens, Urantianism, the Ra-People (who coincidentally contacted my entire department last week looking for a discussion) the religion is based on extra-terrestrials who apparently contacted a single figure on the Earth to communicate a higher truth. I want to be clear about something before I move on, I excluded Scientology from the above list because adherents to the doctrine of L. Ron Hubbard aren’t told of the Xenu and the aliens, and are told that it is a slander spread by outsiders until they reach a certain point. People jumping into Scientology are kept from this aspect. The pattern of these religions is strikingly similar. It’s a voice from the stars that finds an obscure person which teaches them an alternative way of thinking based on some kind of foreign thinking that is obscure enough to be mysterious but not specific enough to actually say anything. The members talk about “energy” and “truth” which sound appealing but without a further explanation as to what kind of energy or what truth it means nothing.

Yet, who am I to ridicule? As I wrote a few posts earlier, is their religion honestly any more out there then what mainstream religions claim? All religions claim the extra ordinary, just the specifics may be a bit different. Again, I posit the claim that the only difference between the outlandish claims of burning bushes and UFOs is time. We’ve had thousands of years of hearing the claims of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions and only a couple decades of Space religions so of course it sounds crazy.

After a couple of rounds of dodging questions about the founder of the religion and his weird titles (to which I credit the host, Carrie, for constantly reasking the same question “Who was George King and where did he get the title doctor?”) one guest finally expressed that he felt the hosts were unprofessional. They were unprofessional because they were belittling one person’s path toward the truth. He felt that if someone is happy with a belief, and that belief makes allows a person to find a role in the world what right is there for an outsider to question or ridicule it?

I find this kind of defense to be cowardly. I’ll grant the individual one thing: if it makes him happy he should keep doing it and be proud of doing it. However, he’s got no claim if I want to think that his idea is full of crap from saying so. The very objection that he raises is nothing more than a form of relativism: if my chosen path necessitates that I look down on belief systems that are different than mine then what right does he have to tell me that I can’t follow my own path to truth? He has no right, his own standard allows this.

Secondly, this idea that just because someone sincerely believes something means that we cannot say that it’s wrong is merely an attempt to censor my own opinion. My point of view is that their founder read a book on Hinduism, didn’t understand it but pulled out some vocabulary words combined them with some fads of the time and created a belief system out of it. I am not wrong to criticize the claim of his religion…or any religion for that matter. It’s my right along with his to believe in whatever he wants to, but I don’t have to shrug my shoulders and accept that while it’s not right, it’s right for him, and the only truth that matters is the personal one.

This is the curse of multi-cultural post modernism. George King was not in contact with a cosmic intelligence, nor is there a satellite orbiting the Earth sending us yogic energy. I want proof of these claims if I am going to be willing to accept the truth of their claims. Truth isn’t relative, no religion gets to claim that theirs is the true path and then dismiss skeptics with a hand wave of, “it’s what I believe and you are insulting me by questioning it.” Truth is objective and reality is something that isn’t affected by what a single individual believes. This shield is nothing more than paper and ought to be burned as such.

(the defense not the person in case I wasn’t clear)

Atheist Perspective: Plato’s God

October 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Philosophy sort of begins with Plato. It’s a qualified statement because chronologically this is an incorrect assertion, Greek philosophy is often taught with his writing as chapter 1, because it is through him that we know most of what we know about Socrates. His school, the Academy, is where we get the term “academic,” his writings give us the word “symposium” (I would say the concept as well but there is surprisingly little drinking during the symposiums colleges usually hold), he’s responsible for the myth of Atlantis and a dearth of programming on the “history” channel…not bad for a former professional wrestler.

Reading Plato, especially his cosmological dialogue “The Timaeus” one begins to understand his view of the divine as the great world builder or “Demi-Urge” which created the universe and everything in it. His creation myth was taken literally by his followers and was persistent enough that all following schools had to at least address it. Plato’s god, is not the gods of the Greek world that we know from the myths, it is something different but still exercises an interest in the world and its management. It’s not the unmoved mover–that’s more in line with Aristotle’s thinking. It is also not the prime contingent truth by which all things hinge upon (again Aristotle and to an extent Augustine).

Plato’s philosophy pushes an idea of the forms, which are immaterial super-objects. I’m going to skip the detailed proof of these things but what we need to know is that they are universal concepts by which all objects are made in mockery. For everything that exists in the physical world, there exists a form of the genus of the object that we can use to create. A chair, to use a tired philosophical cliche is representative of the form “chair” which links all chairs to a central concept. What we would consider the best chair, would be a closer approximation to the form “chair.” I’m being overly simplistic but this is the general idea. What needs to be stated though, is that the form is higher in quality than the physical being. As we approach the form things get more real and more pure.

How is this related to the idea of god? Well, Plato’s theology gets a little messy here. There can’t be a form “god” and a god, that would mean that the ultimate divine was somehow lacking, so Plato’s god and god-form must be one in the same. This seems to make sense, and I would need to quite a bit of research in order to establish this, I will read any contradiction to this assertion but my understanding of Plato is that this must be the case. The god then must have built the world, and is currently managing the world based on the pure wisdom that it has access to through the forms. As it constructed the world it used this knowledge to make it the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds” and then proceeds to influence it in ways it sees fit. We get this knowledge through the Timaeus dialogue. God must engage in the best, most proper activity.

Yet this presents itself with a contradiction internal to Plato’s writings. In Plato’s Republic, which anyone reading this has at least indirect experience with as it is so endemic to our culture, he addresses the question of what is the best possible activity for human beings to engage in. If we look at what we know of his theology from the Timaeus we would think it to be something like world-building, which in his culture would most likely be equated to politics. God manages the world, the rulers manage the city-state, the parallel is obvious. Yet, the character of Socrates in the dialogue doesn’t offer politics as the top activity–it’s up there for sure, the rulers of Plato’s Republic are philosopher kings those endowed with such ability to reason that they are incapable of choosing wrong, but the top activity is contemplation of philosophy and mathematics.

What this indicates is that his god is flawed. It feels that it must be involved in the management of the world but it ought not to be doing so. Activity of any sort indicates an incompleteness and a diversion from the prime activity that it ought to be doing which is pure contemplation. Plato’s student, Aristotle makes the pure contemplation the only feature of his god in stark contrast to his former teacher. How can the god do anything other than contemplation given this contradiction?

In this respect not only is Aristotle’s god superior to Plato’s but also to most other gods in the history of human civilization for the very reason that the other gods are lacking something that they need to fix. If there was no lack, then why are they claimed to act, or be involved in the world? It doesn’t stand to reason. If something is perfect, then it should need nothing, do nothing, etc. because all of its being is fully complete. Yet Plato has his god as an active, involved entity.

What does it show? It shows that Plato added the divine being as an afterthought, or was a part of an incomplete theory that needed to be worked out a bit more. No perfect being could be actively involved in the world unless one is willing to concede some kind of imperfection. Aristotle’s idea is superior in that it is the most consistent–a perfect being that only engages in the best of all possible activities. We can even say that the Epicurean deistic gods surpass Plato on this, in the same way, yet their are other problems with them as we shall see.