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Red Team: The Cracked Article I

May 26, 2015 2 comments

The recent Pew Research poll indicates that the group known as “Nones”–those without any particular religious affiliation (i.e. those who belong to no church) has now become the number two religious group in the country over taking Catholicism by a few percentage points. The atheist/agnostic community celebrates this as a victory, although that is a bit premature. A person can consider themselves a “none” and still be Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Buddhist etc. One podcast, the Scathing Atheist, points out though that the new numbers represent a shift in thinking among those people who are leaving their churches; that they are beginning to think for themselves and that perhaps (this was an assumption on their part) that the concentration on social issues is what is behind this drive. After all, you statistically know one homosexual, and if you don’t think their the epitome of evil or sin, or even think that their is nothing wrong with their lifestyle you are going to be at odds with your church’s teaching on the subject.

Despite the more recent numbers though, Atheists remain one of the most distrusted groups in America. The idea that we would have an avowed atheist president is almost unthinkable. The polls show that we won’t have one for a long time. Why is this the case? While non-believers are on the rise, trust of them remains at a dismal place. Part of it is the general dislike of those who think differently. There are those in this country that believe that compromise on these issues means that a person should just believe in something, no matter what it is. The idea that someone could believe in nothing (although that is not a fair estimation of “atheism”) is unusual, and if Muslims and Christians have one thing in common it’s that they believe in a god. This is what separates them from the non-believers.

I know that part of it is also the unwillingness that some people have to accept that two people may have different beliefs. For some, the belief that they have is so tied up in their personality, their identity, that it actually becomes offensive to them that another individual believes that they are wrong. Still that doesn’t explain everything. I would like to believe that most people are libertarian about another’s beliefs that as long as there is no harm then it doesn’t really matter. I live in a very Jewish neighborhood and aside from the weekly clogging up of my street to parking (which admittedly is less so in the warmer weather) my non belief is not bothered at all by their belief. I know that the reverse isn’t true of most religious groups: they become insanely bothered by the idea that I exist.

Can all of the mistrust be the fault of others? Or is there something within the “movement” that is causing some of this mistrust? Cracked writer, Mark Hill, points to a number of problems that the Atheist movement has created themselves. In other words, there things being done that are not only not helping but actively working against a general acceptance by the public. For the next couple of posts I’m going to run through his list. We’ll begin with the first entry:

5: The Closest thing Atheists have to leaders are terrible people

Hill points out that two Atheist leaders: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens are pretty awful. Hitchens, who died a few years ago was very acerbic. Dawkins comes across with a smug arrogance that in Hill’s words would put off Professor Snape. Hill has a point. One of the most endemic problems among atheists is the arrogance that comes from some of the loudest mouthpieces. Dawkins is a good example, he’s very intelligent, and very accomplished. He’s the one that coined the term “meme.” But his attitude comes off as pretentious and off putting.

There’s an explanation for this: it’s hard to argue with someone who believes in literal interpretations. For instance, if you believe that the moon generates its own light, because Genesis 1:16 says that the moon is the lesser light despite the solid fact that we have known for a very long time that the moon is only a reflector of the sun’s light; it becomes very difficult not to be smug and condescending. How do you argue with a person that denies facts? Especially when that person denies facts because they contradict a book that gets it wrong so many other times.

What needs to be understood is that Dawkins isn’t a leader of Atheism, anymore than the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for all Christians, PETA for all vegetarians, Ann Coulter for Republicans, or Rachel Maddow for Democrats. He’s just the guy they go to when they need an opinion and he’s only too happy to jump in front of the microphone. Other people can certainly take up the mantle: Sam Harris is a decent choice because he comes across more relatable, though he has justified problems with the left (problems I share with him). Penn Jillette is another, but you also have to accept his ultra libertarian politics that blend in with it as well.

The smugness has its place. I won’t say otherwise because the anger that comes from the opposition can not be met with equal anger but it also can’t be ignored. Along with getting the message out that we are part of this country (and in some cases an integral part) we also have to be clear that we don’t want to criminalize religion or religious thinking. Better leaders are needed to make that point clear.

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Miracles are based on the Unseen

May 19, 2015 Leave a comment

Let’s begin with a series of questions. If you had mastery over biology what would you do with it? Let’s just assume for a moment that your will could change the immediate status of a living thing. Let’s also assume that you burned out making giant monsters and are now going to help those who need it. Would you stick to only healing the non-visible ailments or would you cure anything that you want? As an omni-benevolent being capable of doing such incredible feats, to be able to violate the physical causal chains, would you simply confine yourself to the eradication of microbes or cancers rather than just curing anything that you were asked to cure?

It seems like a silly series of questions but think about it: millions and millions of people pray for divine intercession in the health of an individual everyday. As near as I can tell these requests are only “granted” when someone is being already treated by the best techniques that our empirical sciences can determine or during very specific rare conditions that are barely understood. This is the best that such a being can do. Maybe you don’t need praise, but maybe you don’t even want it; but why limit yourself? Why hide your miracles behind the unseen?

One of the more personal requests that I ever made regarding the divine was whether or not it could fix my pectus excavatum. PE is a birth defect caused by an overgrowth of the connective tissue in the front of the rib cage. Oddly enough, this causes a depression in the chest cavity giving it a sunken appearance looking like a bowl in the middle of the chest. Most of the time, like in my case, it’s rather harmless physically. In some cases it can be severe enough where it interferes with the operation of the heart or lungs. Presently, an operation is available that can fix it, but when i was younger that option was unavailable. I just had to live with it.

It never affected by body, it was just a severe detriment to me socially. I wasn’t popular to begin with and the physical deformity just made it worse. When religion class rolled around and they talked about prayer I would ask if it were possible to pray that god would fix my chest. This was one of those curious things that we learned in religion. We could pray that someone would get better if they were sick so I thought that my problem was worth it. I was instead told that I was being silly and that this wasn’t the type of thing that I should be asking for.

I want to be clear: I’m not talking about this because I’m angry at the divine for not fixing my problem. I’m more curious about why it is that it’s not something that I should have been asking. It was as if I was asking for the impossible, which is exactly what it was. On one hand I was told in class about all of these miracles that used to happen: raising a person from the dead, healing the lepers, to stopping the sun: so surely popping out my sunken chest was a thing that could be done. Yet I was told that it wasn’t the type of prayer that got answered.

Some kid in Cambodia steps on an old land mine and I shouldn’t ask god to grow back her limb? She needs the leg more than I needed my chest popped out. Yet it’s the exact type of prayer that one isn’t supposed to ask about for reasons that were never explained to me. Eventually though, I figured it out. It’s because it will never be granted.

No one regrows an arm. No amount of appeal is going to get the leg back and the reason is because this is clearly measurable. All of the rest of it is based on an appeal to ignorance, if we don’t understand it we can easily apply the credit to the intercession. It’s very similar to why modern day witches disallow what they consider black magic/curses. It’s not because it will work it’s because it won’t. All of the diseases that we have cured: polio, smallpox, foot worms, etc. We’re not cured by the divine but by the hand of us humans.

The age of the miracle is over. I get that some of them were based on the idea that the people recording them were merely trying to explain something that was beyond their understanding. Causes beyond our understanding will always look like magic. However if we rely on the magic we will only be disappointed. This is why, when we hear about miracles, it’s always something hidden from plain view.

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A Time to Grade

May 12, 2015 3 comments

It’s that time of year again. I’m so completely burned out from grading that I’m having a hard time gearing up the concentration to write a full post. I apologize for the short post but grading is literally the worst part of my job and also the most exhausting. Here is a quick paragraph:

How many times must we endure failed biblical prophecy before we, as a society, stop pretending that these people are worth listening to? Seriously, it’s getting to be too much. When the Supreme Court rules on the gay marriage question which is a ruling likely in support of it, the preachers are going to be predicting hellfire and the Apocalypse. They are going to be claiming that it is another sign of the end times and when nothing happens members of their congregations are going to forget that anything happened at all. Why are they allowed to get away with this?

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A Shooting in Texas

May 5, 2015 6 comments

I think it would be completely wrong for me to ignore this story without commenting on it given how much I commented on the Paris shootings several months ago. Quick recap: the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (a more Orwellian name I cannot think of) was hosting a contest that awarded 10,000 dollars to the contestant that drew the best picture of the prophet Mohammed. The contest drew the ire of two people who then came to the Curtis Culwell Center in a suburb of Dallas, opened fire on a security officer, whereby local Police Officers intervened, returned fire, and killed the assailants. The assailants, as of the time I am currently writing this there is no official link between the contest and the shooting. Note that I say “official” because I don’t want to say anything untrue. The link is probably going to be the motive, and one of the dead was on the terrorism watch list for trying to travel to Africa to join a terrorist group.

Let’s assume that the contest is the motive for the rest of the post (since I’m pretty sure that is going to be it anyway).

The American Freedom Defense Initiative was a group that participated in protests against what was known as the “Ground Zero Mosque” even not one of those three words actually represent the building in question. They also hosted counter protests against a rally that sought to change negative stereotypes about Muslims, as well as buy advertising billboards that criticize Islam. The leader of the group believes that the AFDI is necessary and wanted the cartoon event to reflect that.

The thing about it is that every article I have read about the shooting points out what the AFDI is, and what they have done around the country. Is the AFDI a necessary institution? No. Are they defending freedom? No. Were they purposely antagonizing an entire religion? Yes. Did they hope to draw attention to themselves by putting on a stunt like this? Yes.

Were they wrong to do so? No.

And this is where my liberal friends get off board. I’m sure the AFDI is a xenophobic organization that is more about forcing Christianity than it is about defending freedom, but none of that matters. As I said with regard to Charlie Hebdo, it does not matter what religion they are insulting. It does not matter that this group is a right wing group anymore than it did that Charlie Hebdo was a French liberal magazine. What matters is that the group bought the space, had whatever permits they needed to have (if any), and then had their contest. They have a right to be offensive just as those who are offended have a right to protest.

It may have been easier for the left to defend Charlie Hebdo because they would tend to agree with Charlie Hebdo’s general philosophy, yet still they added “but” to all their condemnation of the shooting. Maybe the cartoonists shouldn’t have been so provocative, maybe they should respect other people’s sensibilities more, etc. I called all of that bullshit back then, and I continue to do so now. Sure, the contest was nothing more than an elaborate trolling purposely seeking outrage, but none of that matters because the right to speech is more important than catering to everyone’s delicate spines when it comes to being insulted.

I’m not going to relish in the death of those two individuals either: because I’m not a monster. It would have been better if they were arrested and questioned. No, I’m not decrying the police for shooting them, what I’m saying is that it would have been better had it not gotten that far. I would like to know from these attempted terrorists how exactly a contest about making lines on paper enraged them to the point where they believed the only way to settle it was with violence. I would like to know where exactly they discovered that it was morally obligatory to shut down a contest with bullets. I would like to know if they understood that by ignoring this contest that it would have completely defeated its purpose. Sadly, none of those questions will ever be answered.

It’s the right of assembly and speech that was under assault. Those are the rights worth protecting, not any right to be free from offense. In this pluralistic society, which I’m sure the AFDI is not actually for, being around people with ideas that you find offensive is part of the deal. In exchange you get to offend other people just as much. We have every right to make fun of ideas that other people hold dear. We don’t have to be provocative but we can be. That’s the deal.

It certainly doesn’t matter what the group’s politics are. That’s a very dangerous game to even think about playing. As long as the AFDI doesn’t advocate for violence against any particular person or create false panic they have their rights. The only people who are wrong here are the dead would-be terrorists. The rest of it is merely pandering to superstition.

It’s also kind of silly to have a “best Mohammed drawing” since there is no record of what the man looked like. We might as well have a “Best Imperial Roman Spaceship contest.”