Thursday, May 9, 2013

Belief versus Knowledge


All across the world wide web are comments from theists of every stripe denouncing modern science as an attempt by the ungodly to disprove their god or gods. In their never-quenched thirst to be seen as persecuted victims of a world-gone-wild (without taking any responsibility for it, even though they brag about the universality of their beliefs while ignoring the fact that universality undermines their claims of persecution), they try to convince the uncritical and uncertain that science is determined to prove gods do not exist. They make it sound like a holy quest, though we know only believers can enjoy those. 
Religious believers refuse to acknowledge that the best evidence against the possible existence of any particular god is the gross lack of any evidence for one. We have yet to discover any credible, physical evidence that can only be explained by the existence of a certain god and that god’s intervention in our natural world. Science isn’t trying to disprove god, science simply hasn’t found any evidence that irrefutably proves there is one or requires a god to explain natural phenomena.
Even if we could somehow learn to a 99% certainty that the universe began this way or that, that knowledge will not kill off the idea of god.
Science will never make an absolute declaration that it knows how the universe came into being. Definitive, absolute proof doesn’t exist. Science is not religion. It can only draw tentative conclusions from what evidence we can collect. Scientific conclusions are only as valid as the data. As we come across more information, science has to adjust its conclusions. Religions pretend to know absolute truths, yet they require us to accept these truths on faith. Knowledge will never be absolute, religious belief always portrays itself as such. 
If science were to state that all the evidence leads us to believe that the universe started in this or that manner, there will always be room to squeeze in religious belief. We see historically how religions adapt to current reality in an effort to stay relevant and retain their power over people. In all probability science can’t and won’t put an end to superstitious belief. With our complex brains otherwise intelligent people believe in luck and fate. Beliefs can exist beside knowledge without being eradicated by that knowledge. No matter how smart we become about reality, superstition will survive. There are many theories as to why humans develop and believe in superstitions, but history leads me to accept that every human has them. Religious belief will no doubt change subtlety, as it has before, to accommodate secular knowledge, but it will unfortunately be with us for a long time yet. It is, after all, just another superstitious belief.
Already there are Christian groups that have managed to incorporate scientific conclusions into their dogma. They accept the Big Bang as the best explanation for the beginning of the universe that can currently be drawn from available evidence and still credit their god with having set it all in motion. They give reverence to the Bible, but as an allegorical work rather than literal truth. Scientology is another example of a religion that has incorporated some science into their otherwise wildly fantastical belief system.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jesus and Paul were Commies

No doubt most of us know what communism is. In its ideal state, it's a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed.

Communism has, to the best of my knowledge, never been practiced on a national scale in its ideal form. When it has been employed it's been by men who used its structure to impose their will on citizens and persecute their enemies. 

Even on a more modest scale, like communes in the 60s, communism failed because it didn't take into account human nature, especially our penchant for selfishness and greed.

English: Christian Communist symbolYet we know that there was a time when humans lived in small tribes that practiced basic communism. Some modern tribes still do. I suspect the practice is more workable in groups where the members are related by blood or marriage, where the desire to ensure the survival of each member outweighs, for practical reasons, our inborn selfishness. 

According to the Bible, the disciples formed a group with a common cause that should have been of more importance to them than there own needs and desires. Jesus encouraged his followers to adopt an essentially communal lifestyle. As recorded in Luke 3:1`0-11 (ESV), 
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
Likewise Paul, in describing the early Christian communities, wrote in Acts 2:44-47,
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.
The early  followers of Jesus lived in communities, a word and concept that shares its origin with communes, communism and common

Quite often theists will criticize atheism by contending that historically communistic countries were anti-theistic in both law and practice, that atheism was central to that form of governing. They point to Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of atheists employing communism to further their anti-theistic agendas. 

This ignores the obvious truth that any belief about gods, that they exist or don't, can be used by the corrupt to gain power and authority over others. Hitler used his bastardized Catholic beliefs and the support of the Catholic church when it served his political purposes and he held no love for atheists. In a speech delivered in Berlin, October 24, 1933, he said: 
"We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out."
He failed, just as he failed to eradicate Judaism and homosexuality, though not for lack of trying. 

Atheism is not a necessary ingredient of communism. When it is employed by megalomaniacs and corrupt leaders to subjugate and abuse their citizens it is no more akin to the basic meaning of atheism than, when employed by those same sorts of leaders to those same ends, their corrupt concept of communism resembles the essentially empathetic and compassionate nature of that practice in its ideal implementation. 

It's commendable when small groups of people ignore their instinct to hoard for themselves and instead share what they have with each other. It exposes the best of humanity when we care for those who lack among us. That's the basic motivation of charity. 

The failure of communism on the large scale lies not with its unreasonable association with a lack of belief in gods but rather for its inability to eradicate a very human urge. Human greed and selfishness cannot be eliminated by laws or persecution. Those less-than-noble aspects of our humanity can only be controlled when each person understands that we cannot survive on our own, that we all need each other. We need to accept that our own needs will be met if we ensure that everyone's needs are met. We all need to care for one another. 


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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

What happened to the Christianity of Jesus?

What attracted me to Christianity as a teenager were the liberal and pacifist words of Jesus in the New Testament. I, like many Christians today, largely ignored the Old Testament, even though I read the Bible cover to cover. The Old Testament was the Bible of Judaism. I believed then, and still do, that one can be a complete and devout Christian by basing your belief solely on the New Testament.  

It's impossible to ignore these days how far mainstream Christianity has diverged from the words of Jesus and example of his life. And by mainstream Christianity I mean the televangelists and representatives of the faith that appear on TV and in print espousing the standards of modern American Christianity.

When I listen to the words of Pat Robertson or Fred Phelps I can only conclude that the Jesus they follow is a vengeful and hate-filled deity. When I hear politicians proclaim their religious beliefs one minute then hear them recommend cutting social programs and taxing the working class the next, I can only conclude that they are either hypocrites or that they are reading a different version of the story of Jesus than the one I encountered in the New Testament.

If there is an attack being waged on American Christians, it's being conducted by the leaders of the faith.

Two of my literary heroes as a Christian were Thomas Merton and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men not only understood and wrote inspiringly about what being a Christian meant, but they lived a life in full accordance with their beliefs. Merton didn't just write about the value of contemplation and asceticism to the modern believer, he lived his entire adult life as a Trappist monk devoting himself to those values. Bonhoeffer didn't just write about what has labeled as "religionless Christianity" but acted on his pacifist religious beliefs by openly proclaiming his opposition to the Nazi regime, a stance which lead to his death by hanging at the hands of the Gestapo.

This is what the Jesus of my believing years would have endorsed, a faith that was concerned with the plight of all humanity, a truly humble and serving belief.

Modern Christian "heroes", men of wealth and fame like Robertson, Joel Osteen, James Dobson and Tony Perkins, preach a message of intolerance and eschew empathy in any form. They are more concerned with telling others, even those who don't share their beliefs, how they should live their lives than they are with feeding and clothing the poor or helping those in need. Theirs is a gospel of greed and exclusion as opposed to Jesus' example of selflessness and inclusion. Modern Christian leaders and those who claim to speak for the body of believers are in fact the antithesis of Jesus; anti-Christs, if you will.


And while the Pope still proclaims a message of peace and concern for the poor, American Catholics cannot ignore the glaring disparity between his words and the way he lives. Indeed, his lifestyle is exactly the sort that Jesus was well known to preach against. 

I'm not at all surprised by the many polls that indicate that those who don't identify with any religious belief is the fastest growing group in America. Many of us who were raised on the Biblical message of Jesus can't help but see that modern Christianity has abandoned the very essence of Jesus' life and words. The concepts of serving the poor, debasing yourself and your own desires, turning the other cheek, living a life of humility, have been discarded by Christianity. Modern Christianity is now a faith that can best be summed up with the attitude, "I've got mine, screw you". Screw you if you're poor, it's either your own fault or a result of God's displeasure with you. Screw you if you're hungry or homeless, don't expect me to bail you out.

Those who preach this sort of gospel are the true enemies of Christianity and the reason that American Christianity is becoming both irrelevant and unpopular. This hypocrisy is what finally lead me to conclude that Christianity, living a life in accordance with the teachings of Jesus and living a life that emulated his, is a farce. 





Sunday, December 16, 2012

Existence versus belief


The debate over the existence of a god is a question about the factual existence in reality of a specific entity. Since no objective, verifiable evidence has been presented by religious believers that establishes beyond a shadow of doubt that their particular god, or gods in generic form, exists in reality, we are left with inferences from and interpretations of natural events that suggest to some that their god exists. That no conclusive evidence can be presented assures us that the debate over those interpretations and inferences will continue forever, or until such evidence can be produced. The standards for evidence that would establish the existence of a god are quite high, for as Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. 

The debate over the belief that gods exist addresses a reality we can all accept, whether through personal experience or the testimonies of others. The standard for evidence that people believe gods exist is much lower than the standard for the actual existence of a god. We can easily determine that people genuinely and sincerely believe their particular version of god exists. We shouldn't even question that people do in fact believe their god exists. 

The debate over religious beliefs challenges the particulars and specifics of those beliefs. The belief that god exists is a philosophical argument, not a scientific claim, and we know that philosophy is not a scientific field. Science asks, "Can you show that..." while philosophy asks, "Do you think that...". Even believers in a particular god question and challenge the beliefs of those who have faith in another god. That's the basis for the observation that we are all atheists, we all disbelieve in some gods even if we believe that our particular god is real. At least I have never heard of anyone who believes that all the gods ever worshiped by humans throughout history all exist in reality, a sort of ultimate pantheism. 

It's worthwhile to challenge and debate the belief in gods. That process is what led me beyond my own belief in god. If someone's beliefs cannot withstand scrutiny and skepticism then they are shallow beliefs that may not be the most firm types with which to guide a person's life. 

On the other hand it's generally pointless to debate the actual existence of gods. Not only does the hypothesis lack quantifiable evidence but no framework has been suggested by which the question could be objectively confirmed or discounted.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Muslim perspective on the "Innocence of Muslims"

Followed by my response.





While the goal of this video is commendable it ignores a few factors that complicate the situation beyond what it discusses.

As to part 1, Muslims being portrayed as violently reactionary. I agree it’s both unfair and unreasonable to characterize an entire group by the actions of a minority of its members. No one I’m aware of attempts to paint all Christians as hateful and bigoted based solely on the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church members or the Ku Klux Klan. Neither should we characterize all Muslims as violent based solely on the killings and protests committed by a minority within the Islamic community. And lest we overlook the broader implications of this attitude, we should also refrain from judging all non-believers just because a few atheists such as Pol Pot and Stalin were inhumane and committed atrocities the vast majority of atheists condemn. I agree with the video on this point.

As to part 2, the freedom of speech. This issue is more complex and nuanced than the video acknowledges. It’s true that the freedom of speech is not an entirely unrestricted freedom. Societies and governments have established contexts within which the right to speak freely is curtailed either by convention or law. The right to freely speak our minds does not acquit us of responsibility for what we say. On this point I again agree with the video.

What the video inaccurately addresses is the freedom of speech when it involves insult and blasphemy. “Hate speech” is socially unacceptable but is punished, when it is, reactively and not proactively. In other words, anyone is free to insult another but has to accept responsibility for their insult when it results in violence. While it’s socially and, for many of us, personally repugnant to call a Black person “nigger”, there is no legal prohibition against doing so. Nor is it always unacceptable to use the word in every possible context. Both the video and I have used the word and neither of us has done so in an effort to demean or insult Black people. To the broader point, insult is not a prohibited or even restricted form of speech. While most civil people refrain from insulting individuals pointlessly, we generally don’t object to insults directed at groups of people or institutions who have offended us in one way or another. Android users insult Apple users, Democrats insult Republicans, we accept the use of insults and satire to make a distinction between our opinions and those of others with whom we disagree. And while those insults still incur responsibility, we cannot possibly be responsible for every extreme and irrational reaction to them. If I call the God of the Old Testament a jerk and someone stabs me for saying that, can you honestly say that I’m fully responsible for that reaction?

More to the point, Western societies and governments are primarily concerned with insults based on what a person is; their race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, hair color or age, aspects of their person they are born with and cannot easily change. We are not so concerned over insults directed toward what a person has chosen to be. A person chooses to be a Republican, fully aware that there are non-Republicans who may insult them for that decision. When a person chooses to be affiliated with a certain religion they ought to be aware that those who disagree with this choice may express their disagreement through insult, satire or philosophical challenges. There is no freedom from offense. Those offended by the insults and disparagements voiced by those of other faiths or no faith are just as responsible for their reactions are are those who issued the insult or disparagement. There is a real difference between insults directed toward individual believers and the beliefs they hold. The majority of negative comments directed toward Islam, Christianity, Scientology, the Church of Latter Day Saints and other religious groups are directed toward the beliefs of these groups, not necessarily the individuals who hold those beliefs. Religious belief is not exempt from criticism or insult any more than is political belief under the concept of freedom of speech.

What I find disingenuous is Eastern countries attempting to make blasphemy, the vocal opposition to a religious belief, a criminal act under international law while giving lip service to freedom of speech. Blasphemy is not an abuse of the freedom of speech, it’s perhaps the most important aspect of that freedom alongside the freedom to speak out against our own government. It’s a test of that freedom, and the efforts to curtail blasphemy are a failure of that test. 

When you choose to join a religion, political party or other social group, it’s both unreasonable and unrealistic to expect everyone else to automatically respect that choice. It’s a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the freedom of speech to establish legal barriers to disagreements of any passive, nonviolent disagreement with those choices. That’s tyranny, and those of us who champion the freedom of speech will not allow any religion, political party or other social group to become a tyrant. 

(A related commentary from AC Grayling...http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/oct/19/acgrayling)

Saturday, September 29, 2012

You're all gay...sorta.

I contend we are all gay to varying degrees. 

While I've seen no science that supports the notion that humans, both male and female, can be exclusively gay or straight, I have seen studies done that suggest sexual orientation is not an either/or proposition but rather a matter of percentage. Sexuality should be seen as a continuum.

It's a lot like handedness. People are primarily right or left handed, but that doesn't mean there aren't some things a righty does better with their left hand or a lefty with their right. I'm probably 80% left handed, maybe you're 80% right handed. but no one I've ever met has been exclusively left or right handed. In the same way I don't believe anyone is exclusively gay or straight. They might prefer to live a life that appears exclusively gay or straight, but that's behavior, not orientation. 

Many people who self-identify as exclusively gay or straight are horrified by the suggestion that they might harbor even a small percentage of the opposite orientation within them. That's understandable but I believe mistaken. 

I see nothing wrong with accepting that we are complex sexual creatures who are by varying degree both gay and straight, realizing that fact only in a particular circumstance or context or perhaps never at all. If societies hadn't demonized homosexuality the way a majority of them have, based on purely emotional and unscientific beliefs, perhaps we'd have an easier time coming to grips with our own sexuality and our lives would be that much richer and rewarding. As it is very few even among the most open-minded of individuals are comfortable considering the possibility that we are only predominantly gay or straight and not exclusively one or the other.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Crocaducks and Crackpots


Where creationists go wrong in their opposition to evolution and their support for Intelligent Design is their failure to understand that the natural process of evolution and the theory of evolution are two entirely separate things. 

The theory of evolution is the attempt by scientists to explain the process of evolution. It’s an incomplete and ever improving theory. There may be better explanations for evolution but so far none have been put forth that can explain evolution as well as the theory first proposed by Charles Darwin and that can be successfully defended by the scientific method. 

The process of evolution has been observed in nature and replicated in the lab. It’s a natural process that practically every biologist understands and relies on to explain the changes in populations over successive generations. 

The ID crowd errs in offering a replacement explanation for those changes without ever attempting to explain the observed phenomena known as evolution. They simply want to ignore evolution and suggest another unproven and untestable idea instead. 

Creationists often say evolution requires faith, that they can’t believe in evolution. That’s like saying they don’t believe in gravity. While it’s true to a degree that one can believe or disbelieve the theory of gravity, one would be a fool to say they don’t believe in gravity. It’s no different for evolution. Both are observed and documented natural processes. The theories of both gravity and evolution are simply our best attempts to explain how those processes work. The theories could be wrong, there could be better explanations that account for the observations. But neither creationism or ID attempt to provide a better explanation, they want to offer an entirely unique process that hasn’t been observed in nature and can’t be replicated in the lab.