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Atheist Perspective: Tradition

November 25, 2014 Leave a comment

In a few days it will be Thanksgiving (for the U.S.), a secular holiday quickly being swallowed by the real true religion of this country: consumerism. I want to be clear: I’m not a socialist or a Marxist. I’m also not anti-American (although about 50% of the country will claim that I am). It’s hard to admit it when we can watch the only holiday that is solely dedicated to eating with family get absorbed into a ritualistic buying frenzy that compels people to ignore said family for either the buying or the selling of things. It’s a holiday based on a story that no one can pin down when it really happened, or what really happened on the day that it was said to. The tradition is set in stone at this point, although younger family members having to leave dinner to go sell cheap items at their place of business is a new factor.

This year, I’m saying it aloud: I don’t like turkey. I haven’t liked turkey in a long time. The taste is tolerable but given a choice I will eat something else. Even deep fried it’s still pretty bad, just fried.Yet, at any gathering I feel compelled to at least grab a slice of it and throw it on my plate where it gets cut up quickly and mixed with something else. I do this because of tradition, as well as to avoid the look on people’s faces when I say, “I don’t really care for it.” For some reason, people tend to take my preference personally, as if I’m saying “I don’t like your turkey.” I’ve never cooked it myself, because I don’t like it, but it seems to be similar to roasting a chicken–just bigger, any special skill required is to keep it from drying out, which just means that you have to baste it once every half hour (or fifteen minutes).

What’s interesting to me is that when I tell people that I don’t like the ugly bird I get a similar reaction as when I tell them that I am an atheist. This at first puzzled me, but then I realized it’s because I’m breaking tradition. Last year was the first year I fully broke one tradition by cooking beef wellington instead of turkey because I wanted to try it. As a celebration of food the holiday provided a nice excuse to make something new and different. I also don’t particularly care for cranberry sauce, it’s too bitter and I may be going out on a limb here but I don’t think that anyone likes straight cranberry sauce. Everyone I know eats it by spreading it on something else or eating it slowly in tiny spoons. Green bean casserole isn’t good and I am of the strong opinion that this portion of the meal was developed as “a tradition” by some company that sold canned green beans. Stuffing is just mushy, grease soaked bread that has the consistency of a wet sponge while the sweet potatoes (or yams) with the marshmallows on top seems to me to be an excuse to eat marshmallows as every time I see a person serve themselves they are always a little over generous with the coating rather than the substance.

This isn’t to say that I dislike the holiday. It’s just the factors of the holiday are traditions that are carried on for the sake of tradition. What really is to say that you can’t eat whatever you want on Thanksgiving? There is no law, and even early reports of the original story claim that the Natives taught the Pilgrims how to catch eels and grow corn. Shouldn’t we be eating eel and corn pie?

I hope by now that you’ve figured out the religious allegory. When we think of holidays, we can’t think too much about them or the stories begin to fall apart. We end up celebrating something other than what was intended (with the understandable exceptions of Veteran’s day [originally celebrating WWI veterans but now all veterans], Memorial day [originally the Civil War], and July 4th [Adams said it would be July 3rd but it’s not really Independence day we still had the war to fight]). It may simply be that in questioning the role of an ugly stupid bird as the central piece of a holiday I am forcing people to think about something that they had always taken for granted. This is certainly the case regarding atheism–where the thought never enters a person’s head that you could live without any kind of religion. It’s simply the way things have always been done.

Traditions are just that, there’s nothing right or wrong with them, but what is wrong is always thinking that they are right, or more importantly; necessary. Keep your turkeys, I don’t want them; but I won’t want to take your turkey away if you don’t try to force me to eat it. This year I’m having duck.

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Atheist’s Perspective: “Atheists aim to make Creator superfluous”

November 18, 2014 2 comments

As an atheist one of the most frustrating obstacles to daily living is reading editorials by people who, otherwise seem intelligent, completely misunderstand the general idea of what “atheism” means. I’ve mentioned the “Catholic Courier” in a previous post. The gist of it is that it’s a rag with a cover story usually about a message from the Vatican, a few local stories reflecting how that new message is reflected by the parishes, local church news, various other social events, a kids section, the obligatory anti-choice articles (at least two), and then the editorials. I flip through it giving a quick scan for anything I can use in one of my Ethics courses, then it’s usually a short trip right into the recycling bin.

I tend to pay little regard. I’ve yet to see a major story take a controversial stance or even address a controversial stance. It seems odd since the current Pope has been saying various things that have been shaking the old conservatives. Typically the editorial page only reflects the type of articles fitting out the same pattern, that’s to be expected in any paper though. Although there is always a bit more anti-choice (I’m using that term on purpose) than anything else. In this issue one editorial caught my attention, “Atheists aim to make Creator [sic] superfluous,” by Stephen Kent.

The author is one of those people who seem to be unable to understand different viewpoints than his own, notably the viewpoint of anyone who doesn’t share his point of view. Kent’s conclusion is the usual lie about loving the sinner and hating the sin when he writes, “we should accord them (non-believers) the respect and dignity they deserve as creatures of a creator they don’t believe in. But [sic] feel free to disdain their ideas.” He gives permission for his readers to disdain another’s ideas simply because they are different. Let’s let this idea sit aside, since it is a Catholic quarterly newspaper it would make sense that everyone reading would be predisposed to view differing ideas as incorrect. Perhaps not worthy of disdain, that is taking it to far but as incorrect…well that makes sense for this type of paper.

The issue I have is that Kent does little to understand what exactly is going on. His first piece of evidence to support his conclusion is that the USAF, “no longer requires ‘so help me god’ as part of the oath taken upon the enlistment of airmen or the commissioning of officers.” This change to the Air Force’s oath was the result of a legal battle. Kent believes that anyone in the Air Force would need “all the help one can get from aerodynamics as well as divine intervention.” The oath was changed because it forced people who didn’t believe in god to swear an oath to a god they don’t believe in. They are promising to defend this country and to seal the oath, they invoke a supernatural being whether or not they have a sincerely held belief that the supernatural being exists. This nullifies the oath. I can’t make a solemn oath to a deity that I don’t believe in. It’s reminiscent of the stink that was raised when Keith Ellison was elected to the House in 2006. He requested to use a Quran instead of a Bible since he was a Muslim. As the Bible means nothing to him why ought we request that he place his promise in something he has no faith in? The USAF allows its people to still invoke their deity but it can’t rightly force people to do so. The lawsuit which caused this change was the result of an airman being told to swear to god or leave. Is this the freedom that the Air Force is supposed to be protecting? How would Kent feel if he were required to swear to a different religion’s god in order to get a job, if the requirement for a government position was that he lay his hand on the Baghavad Gita or the Quran would he still be claiming that it’s the fault of the atheists?

His second piece of evidence regards a New Jersey toll taker that was allegedly told to stop saying “god bless you” to customers on the NJ Turnpike. Given that the lawsuit is still ongoing I use “allegedly” as all reports on the issue are in agreement that the state authority has no policy against saying “god bless you.” I feel that this is not evidence of anything, and may in fact not be anything at all.

Kent misses the point entirely. As an atheist I want to not be forced to pay homage to something that I don’t believe in. I certainly don’t want my government to be telling me to do it. If I wanted that I could move to one of the many theocratic countries throughout the world. The non-religious of the world and this country may want to appreciate the wonders of the natural world, and as Kent suggests we may even think about where it comes from. That’s one reason I’m a non-believer. I’m sure many others like myself do have this kind of inquiry but to leverage that into a the eventual realization that he and those like him are right is a bit of leap, since they usually start with the divine assumption that work everything else to fit that assumption.

I can’t speak for all Atheists, just myself and the ones that I have met and we don’t make fun of Deists. Here is major mistake is conflating the terms “Deist” and “Theist.” I don’t spend most of my time thinking about theists at all, aside from the people that I know that happen to be theists. We aren’t legion, there are many of us but we have no leader or dogma–unlike him.

Some atheists have been adopting a community that would be likened to a “church.” I’ve only heard of these organizations but the point is to have a sense of community and mutual support. This isn’t what he calls “like gathering in a symphony hall to hear no music.” This polemic seems to operate under the assumption that there isn’t any reason for people to gather aside from worshiping a supernatural being. I don’t understand why Kent needs to feel like people can’t gather for any purpose other than one he would share, but not getting the point is exactly what the issue is.

Atheist Perspective: God is not a wizard

November 11, 2014 Leave a comment

A lot of pixels have been burnt among the atheist, agnostic, free-thinking crowd regarding Pope Francis. It was to be expected given that this guy is such a departure from the previous two popes that some controversy has been generated. It’s a shame though because for every step forward he seems to take a step backward as well. He wants Catholics to stop being so focused on social issues but then penalizes nuns for doing exactly that–focusing on poverty rather than abortion and homosexuality. He says that people like me are not damned to hell but then walks back his comment on whether or not we can be saved. This latest move, one that had the science fans all in a buzz, was that he claimed the Big Bang and Evolution were not incompatible with the Christian faith, and that the evidence for both theories were conclusive and necessary for the Catholic view on the formation of the Cosmos. He then went on to give his blessing to the Catholic exorcist conference. One step forward, one step backward.

If we consider his thinking on the Big Bang and Evolution though, he’s not that revolutionary. Sure, it may seem odd that such a pious Christian would accept the scientific theories, but if you think that it’s only because you pay too much attention to the likes of Ken Ham and other loud mouth bible literalists. The Catholic Church, since Pope Pius XII, has been accepting of scientific theory provided the evidence of it is overwhelming. That’s supposed to be the case, facts are neutral in that they reflect the reality of the world. Pius XII accepted the hypotheses, John Paul II commented that evolution was an “effectively proven fact.” You can shout “Galileo” and “Bruno” to me as evidence of the Catholic church’s opposition to science but there are two relevance issues with both of those martyrs. First they were over five hundred years ago and an organization can change. Second, there problem with the church was a bit more than just the ideas they proposed. Galileo in his dialogues repeatedly called the defender of the old system “Simplicio” (meaning “simpleton”) using Pope Urban VIII’s words. Whether this was on purpose or not is a matter of debate but the Catholic church did not take lightly both the insult and the denial of their doctrine. With Bruno, his crime was not so much the teaching of an alternative view of the universe but that he taught against Catholic dogma, most notably he denied the trinity and that Jesus was anything but a normal man (in either case immolation was undeserved but we must be careful on why it happened to him).

Whether or not you trust the Catholics on science is a matter of opinion, but their track record shows that they accept it with regard to the physical world. They also at least consider dissenting opinions, their “Pontifical Academy for Life” brought in the dissent, and while I hold the opinion that they came to the wrong conclusions on moral issues they do at least get the science behind the controversies. Claiming that evolution and the Big Bang are more than ideas is nothing new for the Papacy. In fact, Georges Lemaitre, the person who originally came up with the Big Bang was a Catholic priest and was completely uncensured for developing the theory (I suppose it would be hard to do so when even Einstein vocally applauds it).

It’s only Benedict in recent times that has tried to walk back on evolution, but nevertheless the Catholic church has stood by it’s acceptance of the theories.

What’s troubling is Francis’ comments. He said that “When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so…”

Really? I thought god was supposed to be omnipotent, able to do anything by sheer will. How else can he violate the physical laws of conservation. The same question that is posed to me and my ilk, “how did something form from nothing?” I thought was answered by the theists through divine will. Now, however, we have a qualification. God used the big bang and evolution as tools to make creation. I can accept it without the god part but it raises the question of why god needs tools and materials in the first place. The Epicurean asks Cicero in “On the Nature of the Gods,” what tools the gods used to create the universe, what methods, what raw materials, and the question is left unanswered by the Stoic and Academics in the dialogue.

The “magic wand” comment is curious, because I never have thought of god as a wizard, even when I believed. I have no memory as to how I thought creation was undertaken but my vaguest memory was just using words to bring things into existence (which of course would have been in Latin). God doesn’t need a wand, but he also would not need a mechanism. Claiming that these theories necessitate the existence of a god being begs the question–God used the big bang to create the Cosmos that’s how we know God exists. I’m afraid not Papa, if God is subject to the Big Bang and Evolution that means that the law of the physical universe are above His will, which means that the laws restrict those divine abilities of creation. It also means that the miracles of the holy book are impossible since the universe doesn’t allow them. The sun can’t stop in the sky to allow one army to massacre another, and many others that we can point to.

Accepting scientific theories is not something to be lauded, it’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s not a brave thing that he did, it merely represents a stance that was taken five decades ago. Pius XII wasn’t even changing the stance of the church at the time, he was merely clarifying that the soul cannot be explained by evolution. I’ll even accept that, evolution cannot explain the soul–nothing can because it’s an assumption. Yet the science is proven, it’s not a miracle to accept it it’s merely what we ought to expect form any rational person.

Atheist Perspective: Ridiculous

November 4, 2014 Leave a comment

“I have a new appreciation for the Catholic church and Catholics in general. They don’t seem to be all that serious, they have parties, drink, holidays, etc. These other people are just crazy.”

This was said to me over the weekend. It made me think about the semi-debate that comedian Bill Maher and Sam Harris have been having with their fellow liberals (actually, I have no idea about Sam Harris’s politics but I know his stance on religion) about Islam. It’s caused a bit of controversy because the left in American politics has a paradox that it needs to resolve: are they accepting of all beliefs or not? On the one hand liberal politics is supposed to be about progress and bringing in new/different points of view. Right wing politicians in the US have a hard time being anything other than Christian, and even then it’s a certain form of Christianity that they have to appeal to in order to pass the primaries.

Left wingers on the other hand have to cater to an entirely different stereotype. With regard to social policies or ideals, they have to almost be anti-Christian. Pro-Choice, pro-birth control, pro-Euthanasia (oddly too, people of the book on the other side cannot point to one passage from their book addressing any of those issues since they don’t exist) and pro-religious tolerance. Now I don’t want to relate my stance on abortion, birth control, or the right to die in this post. Religious tolerance though, is where the conflict exists.

The tendency on the left is to be unrealistic about the effect of religion on its followers. Their mantra seems to be a kind of cultural relativism, and it’s completely hypocritical for them to do so. If the entire state of Utah wants to enact Mormon policies through popular democratic processes as a matter of culture there isn’t a left winger that wouldn’t criticize it. Stereotypes would fly freely about what a Mormon is, how they want to run things, and that even the moderates are guilty through silence.

I don’t know what happened in the 60s, I was not alive. However at some point being on the left meant that anything exotic or different had to be accepted. The more foreign the better, and this is what becomes the problem.

As an atheist I understand that religion is man-made, all of it. I agree with Thomas Paine on this. I also understand that religion makes people do things, violent horrible things in the name of a spiritual being whose orders come through books, texts, and other people. The actions taken in the name of a religion may or may not be supported by the religion itself, since I’m being completely general I don’t think it’s a controversial statement.

When we get specific we find that almost every one of the major world religions have a substantial amount of violence reserved for non believers…especially the Abrahamic religions. The problem that Maher and Harris have run into with the left is that they haven’t restricted their criticisms of religion to Christianity as is the vogue. They have also decided to condemn Islam as well. In doing so what they have done is given the appearance that they are Islamaphobic.

Are they? Defending their position is difficult because condemning a religion I was not a member of seems to creep myself into some kind of racism. However I’m not prejudging people, I am judging a religion. I can condemn a religion that is anti-education, anti-progress, anti-human rights, etc. That’s not hard, in fact that should be our duty. If someone, anyone goes around spouting hatred and motivating others to commit violence and terrorism we ought to be telling that person and those listening to them that they are wrong. If they are using a religion as the lever to achieve those ends are we supposed to stop? No.

The quote at the top of this post was not a person talking about all Catholics, it was a person talking about people who are really lax about their religion. They believe in the basic story but are completely different from fundamentalist Catholics who oppose homosexual rights, birth control, divorce, and fraternize with apostates and non-believers. The more fundamentalist a member of a religion get the more intolerant of those who don’t share those beliefs. Islam is not unique in this regard.

Saying this does not make a person a racist. The evidence that Islamic fundamentalists execute and make war upon those who don’t share their beliefs exists. The current war in the Middle East concerning ISIS is a sectarian conflict within Islam between those who believe one thing and those who believe another. This is a fact. As the Islamic holidays approach the tensions that exist between the Shia and the Sunni sects are more than likely going to boil over. Again though, this is not endemic to one religion, it’s merely identifying it within one religion.

Of course there are quite a bit of Muslims across the world who do not approve of the actions of the violent minority with whom they share a common religious belief. We have no idea what the numbers are because such a survey, I think, would be impossible to accurately conduct. It exists in Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. The actions of the violent minority do not reflect the ideas or even the wishes of the majority. Pointing out that this minority exists is not hatred. Pointing out that a larger group give silent approval is also not hatred. It ought not to be our policy to tolerate intolerance or to tolerate violence. Placing a muzzle on our opinions just because people are different is cowardice.

Can we explain the violence a different way? Perhaps, perhaps we can claim that poverty conditions, oppression by dictators, centuries of sectarian tensions all lead to what we have been seeing these last few decades. If the common thread in all the horrible actions is an idea, then that idea ought to be condemned. If a cartoon, in a small newspaper is so offensive that violence erupts it is not the cartoon which is at fault but the idea that those who feel that criticisms are worth attack and death which is. A religion which believes that any apostasy or defiance is worth death should not be protected by politeness.