Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Tyrant to Value Above All

"Christ is not valued at all unless he is valued above all." -Saint Augustine of Hippo

When it comes to the difference between moderate and fundamentalist Christians, I think this quote says it all. We often hear, even from some liberal believers, that putting Christ first in our lives is the most important decision we can make. The gist behind Rick Warren's bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life, is that the only way to lead a truly fulfilling life is by placing Jesus at the center of it. The same sentiments are echoed by Pat Robertson and others who have called America to 'get back to god,' as well as politicians who believe their god would never let global warming harm the earth and that our prosperity as a nation is divinely tied into our relationship with Israel. Then there are the believers who refuse medical treatment for their own children, leading to numerous deaths that could have easily been prevented if welfare had been put before faith.

Are these examples of an extremist interpretation?
According to the gospels, Jesus himself even explained that unless one "comes to me and does not hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - yes, even their own life - such a person cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). In other words, Christ has to come first, even above your own family. Does this mean denying medical treatment, ignoring the state of the environment, and all else? If you're putting Christ first, then you should have no worry, as he says in the bible, "I will do whatever you ask in my name" (John 14:13). Indeed, this is the thinking of many who prefer to rely on god instead of science. Somehow moderate believers will respond that Christ should be valued highly, but not above everything, and even many fundamentalists will not extend their 'Jesus or bust' philosophy to areas of health and safety.

But why not? The bible clearly supports Augustine's statement above, and even if you reject the infallibility of the bible, isn't faith something to be praised in all denominations of Christianity? I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a Christian who would not agree with the idea that the more one relies on god, the better their relationship with him will be. Any Christian who claims that one should not rely much on god is at odds with practically all of the bible and Christian theology. If Jesus and/or god don't merit this degree of faith to liberal Christians, then why even bother having faith at all? God could save you from your sin, but can't (or won't) help with some direction in your life?

This leads me to the ultimate problem behind the 'Jesus first' mantra. If you can't trust your god in any area of your life, why should I trust him even in one area of mine? Of course, this is a rhetorical question, because I consider unwavering devotion to be a bad idea and an immoral teaching. One reason why the story of Abraham and Isaac is often criticized by non-Christians is because it emphasizes this 'god above all' mentality better than anything else. Believers are quick to note that Abraham doesn't actually sacrifice Isaac, but it doesn't matter, because the real horror is in the blind faith that would lead a person to even consider killing their child under the orders of a god. Abraham undoubtedly put god before his own family and was rewarded and praised for it even centuries later. Today parents who would do the same will be prosecuted, thrown into mental hospitals, and treated like unstable lunatics, rightly so.

Putting Christ first means putting a halt on progress. The period in history when most of the world valued Christ above all else has been appropriately named the Dark Ages now. Many asked in the name of Christ, yet the door was not opened to them. Many put Christ before all others, and yet 'blessings' only came in the form of plagues and wars. Part of what makes Ingmar Bergman's film, The Seventh Seal, such a masterpiece is its title. In the book of Revelation, the seventh seal is silence in heaven, and nothing more accurately describes the Dark Ages. The approach of Augustine, Rick Warren, Pat Robertson, and other believers has been tried before, and all it yielded was disaster. We have a name for someone who demands his subjects to put him above all else: a tyrant. The Christian god is a tyrant in every sense of the word - threatening dissenters with unimaginable torment, commanding tribute in the form of worship, and generally looking after his own interests. The day when tyrants are to be valued above all is a dark day indeed.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Native Americans: Another Reason for Republicans to Hate Obama

You can name some of our slave-owning founders as your heroes and be met with praise and agreement, but should you name a Native American legend who killed an American general as your hero, Fox News and Republican pundits will call for your sacrifice to the gods of vain patriotism. Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, but what's really blown out of proportion here is the fact that Fox has criticized Obama for naming Sitting Bull as one of his inspirations in a new children's book. Even though one of the other inspiring figures Obama cites is George Washington, this clearly proves that Obama hates America and wants to make us into a socialist country.

What is it about an admiration for Sitting Bull that offends the right wing? His defeat of Custer? His resistance to the expansionist policies of the U.S.? At the risk of sounding like a traitor to some, what exactly is so different about Sitting Bull from, say, the American colonialists of the Revolutionary War? Britain was extending its influence over us and we fought back. We killed plenty of their men. The only real difference I can see is that Native Americans had established lives here long before the U.S. government came to uproot them.

Speaking of government interference, isn't that the rallying cry whipping boy of Republicans now - that the government is too big, gobbling up too much they don't have a right to? It seems to me that Sitting Bull should be an idol of the Tea Party and other anti-government conservatives, not an enemy. But that doesn't appear to be the way they think. Government is good when we're talking about imperialism and military strength, but it's bad when anything else is involved.

It may not just be about chest-beating patriotism though. Remember that the Republican party boasts of such prominent persons as Rush Limbaugh, who has called Native Americans "injuns" on more than one occasion, and Glenn Beck, a Mormon who believes Native Americans are descendants of ancient Hebrew tribes (and their skin was turned red as a punishment from God). According to this news article from Fox, there are apparently plenty of conservatives who still resent losing Custer to those 'redskins'.

There are many valid reasons to dislike Obama, but when his respect for a Native American is one of them, I have to wonder if all the accusations of rampant racism in the Republican party don't have some truth to them. The Democratic party has its flaws and nutjobs too, no doubt, but I don't see this sort of ridiculous paranoia and blind-faith patriotism coming from the liberal side. I don't define myself as Democrat or Republican, but I do have to say, I'd probably rather be known as a "bleeding-heart liberal" than a hateful, war-mongering conservative.

Rest in peace, Sitting Bull.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Media is Anathema to Critical Thinking

One of the big stories to gush out of online media today is that of a 1928 film clip depicting what some are suggesting is a woman talking on a cell phone. In numerous news articles, the figure is called a 'time traveler'. This has to be one of the most noteworthy cases of blatant disregard for critical thinking that I've seen from major internet media sources. Viewing the footage, you can see that the individual is holding something up to her head and talking... and that's all. The quality is grainy and dark, like most film shot in the '20s, so there's no telling what's in her hand. And this has led to speculation about time travel?

Has no one thought to ask how a time traveler would get cell phone service back in 1928? People have already suggested that the woman may actually be carrying an ear horn, or early hearing aid device, but you probably won't find that in news headlines. Since the footage is from the premiere of a Charlie Chaplin film, perhaps the woman is pulling a prank. Some have even surmised that the figure is actually a man dressed as a woman. Or maybe she's just covering her ear because it hurts, because it's gotten cold (she is wearing a pretty hefty coat), or she doesn't want the camera on her face.

Whatever the explanation, once again the media has blown an extremely trivial and unimpressive discovery into something paranormal. You might ask, 'it's only the media, why do you care?' I care because while I've noticed how many people tend to distrust the media on natural explanations and government affairs, they seem to exercise far less critical thinking when the reports involve unexplained phenomena. Another recent example is the so-called UFO spotted in New York on October 13th. A couple days after the sighting, the circular floating objects were suggested to be... you guessed it: balloons, which had gotten loose from an engagement party for a teacher at a nearby elementary school.

However, in the Associated Press' video on the incident and explanation, interviews with a few witnesses show that people aren't buying the balloons theory. Why? No one really offers a reason, they only seem to prefer believing the fantastical story to the mundane one. The craziest thing is that close-up footage of the UFOs in the AP video shows what looks startlingly like a cluster of silvery balloons. But if that's "the official story", we can't believe it, and the media went to great lengths to remain impartial on the issue.

I think the media realizes that most of our world still prefers magical thinking to rational thinking, and in that saddening fact they find a way to climb in their ratings.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Our Animal Nature or a Sinful Fallen Nature?

Every now and then I am inspired to reflect on our animal nature. When I read of wars, rape, and discrimination, I can't help but shake my head and question, 'how can anyone deny that we're just another species of animal?' Creationists believe that we are specially created beings, not descended from any primate ancestors, as evolution tells us. Even though I am a former creationist, it doesn't make sense to me how anyone can look at some of our species' brutish, primitive behaviors and miss the connection to the animal kingdom. I often ask myself how I could have been so blind too, but a thought occurred to me tonight that put an interesting perspective onto things.

When many religious believers read of wars, rape, and discrimination, their first reaction is usually to contemplate our sinful or fallen nature. This is readily apparent in the popular argument for evil, i.e. the world around us is in such a hellish state because evil exists, and you can't have evil without good, so therefore good (or God) must exist. For creationists, there is no need to even raise the possibility of animal instincts fueling our misbehavior, because they already believe they have an explanation: we are fallen, sinful creatures.

This thought led me to wonder - are these two views on human nature all that different? Both often claim the same negative behaviors as evidence for their own perspective. Both stress the importance of overcoming our nature, whether it's in order to live in a civilized society or to maintain a religious call to purity. Both also run the gamut as far as what falls under our natures. Our animal nature and the fallen nature view can both drive us into serious offenses like murder and trivial ones like mating. The similarities pretty much end there, however, and there are some major points of conflict between the two views.

First and foremost is the assignment of responsibility. According to religion, our fallen nature is our own fault. Whether sin traveled down via Adam and Eve or we make our own original sin each day, we are to blame. On the other hand, our animal nature is no fault of our own, it's the result of evolution and it's simply who we are because of what we are. Consciousness and free will may impose a sort of moral imperative to resist our primitive instincts, but the point is that we did not give ourselves this animal nature, so we should feel no unnecessary shame or guilt.

Secondly would have to be the resolution proposed for overcoming our nature. With our animal nature, all we need do is make a conscious and concentrated effort to control our instincts. It may require some discipline, and everyone will crack under stress at times, but our ability to make decisions means we are not helplessly bound to our primal urges. Religion teaches just the opposite: we cannot overcome our fallen nature alone. Instead we must reach out to a deity or savior, otherwise we are helplessly bound to our sinful urges.

Last but not least in these differences would be the consequences for giving into our nature. To let sin rule your life will mean eternal separation from God in horrible agony. There is no real second chance - if you indulge your fallen desires, you will pay for it more than a hundredfold. Yet the worst that could happen with indulging our animal nature might be a jail sentence or execution. The punishment does not continue for eternity, and there are chances to shape up. The crux here is that a trivial offense, while met with a trivial punishment (or none at all) in the animal nature view, will receive the full penalty of a serious offense in the fallen nature view, for God judges all sins as equally detestable (Matt. 5:21-28).

Up until this moment, I've been noting the differences between both views with an emphasis on moral concerns. These concerns do not have much bearing on the truth or falsity of either view though, and so I'll turn to the evidence. Both views claim many of the same behaviors for evidence of their validity, as mentioned before, but I think only one side is actually entitled to them. To find the evidence for our animal nature, one need only look at the animal kingdom in contrast to ourselves. Animals frequently go to war with other species and sometimes even with their own. There is also rape and tribalism among countless animals.

I'm not saying that this alone proves our animal nature, but it does significant damage to the fallen nature view. If animals display many of the same behaviors that equate to sin in humans, is the animal kingdom of a fallen nature too? Some believers have argued that the fall in the garden affected the entire world, but this is nonsense when applied to animals. Did Jesus die to save chimps? Jackals? Tapeworms? If the believer claims that these behaviors don't imply anything about a fallen nature in animals, they are guilty of special pleading and their argument falls apart (not to mention that it suggests that God picks some very confusing design standards, apparently to mess with our heads).

What does the fallen nature view have as its support anyway? It may claim things like war, rape, and discrimination as evidence of sin, but this link is only made in holy books and other religious texts. While we may observe animals behaving much like ourselves in the natural world, and vice-versa, faith in the reliability of an ancient book is all that sustains the fallen nature view. In so many ways, the fallen nature view is about regressing, looking back to a primitive text, returning to a state of purity, and so forth. The animal nature view is one of progress, moving beyond instinct with these wonderful brains, looking forward to a brighter future with the aid of reason.

In one view, the world is decaying, we are to blame, and we are powerless to stop it, forced to rely on the assistance of a "higher" being who let it all happen and demands our worship in return. In the other view, the world is evolving and advancing, and although we did not set all of this in motion, we do have the power to change things for the better, one life at a time.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Lean on God and You'll Only Fall

During the course of my life there have been several moments of insight inadvertently revealed through unintentional words of wisdom. It has taught me to choose my words more carefully, because we never know how sometimes even our casual statements can affect the thinking of others. It's particularly interesting for me to reflect on statements I've heard from friends and family that have greatly impacted me, especially when they end up influencing me in a way that is contrary to their own intentions.

One such statement came from my evangelical Christian father, back when he was still preaching. 'Sometimes you just have to do things yourself,' he said. 'Some people spend a lot of time waiting on God, but life doesn't work that way.' I remember that this comment startled me at the time, because it was perhaps one of my first realizations of how life experience conflicts with the idea of an intervening god. I suspect my dad's point was that God doesn't accommodate slackers (though at least he pestered some of them, like Jonah, enough to show his intervening ways), but I took his remark a bit further.

God may not be in the business of giving handouts to the lazy, but what about the active and faithful? Why doesn't God roll out the red carpet for them? Even beyond matters of assistance, why does it seem like prayers so often fall on deaf ears? I'll admit, I had a pretty magical conception of God at the time. My god was one who worked miracles all the time, helping more than just those in need. My god was one who I could ask for anything with some real hope of getting it. I did not consider this naive or selfish, because scripture was on my side (Luke 11:9, John 14:13).

I never understood why life doesn't work that way if God exists. My Christian view of God was that he is reaching out to all of us in love, to save us and bring us into a relationship with him. This is not unusual among Christians, I've found. Yet if God is trying to get us on his team, why isn't he making more of an effort to impress? Is God not a theatrical deity anymore? Why are there less angel appearances these days? Can't God pop in occasionally to brutally murder a rapist right in the nick of time? Maybe shield poor regions from being hit by hurricanes? Hey, if he could stop the sun in the sky for an entire day (Joshua 10:13), none of this should be outside his toleration.

I used to pray a lot - almost every hour of the day. When my wishes would not be fulfilled, I'd typically chalk it up to selfishness or impurity on my part, or as part of God's 'mysterious plan' that's simply not for me to comprehend. This was all well and good until I started noticing that God's batting average was practically zero for thousands. Not only is that indistinguishable from random chance, but it doesn't seem like smart behavior for a deity that wants to bring everyone to faith in him. It seems like God couldn't give a damn whether or not people notice him... or, more likely to me, he doesn't exist in the first place.

Personally, I think this acceptance makes for a wonderful difference in how life is approached. I no longer believe God is protecting me wherever I go, so I mind my safety more these days. I no longer believe God is guiding me along in his calling for my life, so I take more initiative and work my hardest to get what I want out of life. I no longer believe God has some secret plan behind it all, so I do my best to learn what I can to make sense of things. Some will point out that a lot of Christians live this way too, and I don't doubt it. I might venture to say that the majority of Christians are atheist in practice, when it comes to relying on God in their lives. Life doesn't work that way.

The funny thing about all of this is that, in essence, worry is what I have without reliance on God. I used to think worry was the last thing I needed in my life, feeling comforted and grateful that I could surrender it to God, never able to go wrong with him in control. But worry is healthy. It keeps us from being self-destructive, keeps us from drifting off in thoughtless apathy, and keeps us generally grounded in reality. This also seems at odds with Christianity.

In Matthew 6:34, Jesus encourages his followers: "do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself." A few verses prior, Jesus imparts more of his curious wisdom: "Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?" (v.26) Don't worry is the message; God is in control. But the irony is that birds starve on a regular basis and many of the young die upon leaving or falling from the nest. Are we any different than they?

I think I would rather worry about tomorrow than wait on the graces of a god who seems largely ignorant and incompetent. Worrying and concerning ourselves with things has led to progress, while sitting back and relying on faith has not. No diligent believer was given the polio vaccine through prayer or revelation, and no one survived polio under the protection of God. It was our worry over the disease that drove us to investigate a cure. Life works when we take the reigns. It comes to a halt when we do, no matter how convinced we may be that invisible otherworldly hands have taken up the reigns for us.

Monday, August 30, 2010

About the 'Ground Zero Mosque'

Lately I've been hearing a lot of disapproval for the mosque, or Islamic community center, that is supposed to be built near the site of the World Trade Center attacks. Christians are not the only ones leading the protests either, as even popular YouTube atheists like Thunderfoot and Pat Condell have expressed distaste for the construction of this mosque. The 'ground zero mosque' is a misnomer on several levels though. Not only is it being built two blocks away from the actual ground zero site, but it is not merely a mosque, since it includes plans for a swimming pool, fitness center, basketball court, and even a September 11th memorial, among other things. Thunderfoot's assertion that this building will be a victory symbol overlooking the 'conquered' WTC site is also ridiculous, because the community center will not have a view of the area from its position.

As much as I hate the word Islamophobia, due to the frequent misuse of it by Muslims against anyone critical of Islam, I am beginning to wonder if Thunderfoot, Pat Condell, and many of these other opponents to the 'mosque' are truly Islamophobes. Without regard for the countless Muslims who are not terrorists, both T-foot and Condell accuse the community center of being funded by terrorist groups, intended as a terrorist victory symbol, and so on. The irony is that, as many people have already pointed out, the site where this building is meant to go was already used by Muslims before this time. We have had almost 9 YEARS to rebuild something at ground zero as a testament to our resilience, but nothing has been done. I get the feeling that if there were towers at the site again, this proposed community center wouldn't even be a topic of conversation.

In Thunderfoot's video, he points out that if a similar event to the WTC attacks had occurred in Saudi Arabia, at the Kabaa, one of Islam's holiest sites, no one would be allowed to build a church nearby, because even access to the area is restricted exclusively to Muslims. This strikes me as a horrible argument against the 'ground zero mosque' though, as it's essentially espousing eye for an eye philosophy, something Thunderfoot has criticized himself in the past. Why sink to the level of Saudi Arabia? This is not about tolerance or equality, it's about standing up for the principles this nation was founded upon. We don't let the terrorists win by allowing Muslims to put a building near ground zero, we let them win if we give fear and paranoia a foothold and turn our backs on the very freedoms that make America a country worth living in.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Illinois Pays $20k to Restore Giant Cross

According to an article on Yahoo news, an atheist is suing the state of Illinois over a $20,000 grant given to restore an 11-story cross monument known as the Bald Knob Cross of Peace (kind of suggestive, isn't it?). Using taxpayer money for a clearly sectarian purpose is unconstitutional, no matter how you spin it, but what really stood out to me was a comment by the monument's administrator and local pastor, Steve McKeown.

"What [the plaintiff] wants is a United States that's free from religion. Our founding fathers never meant that to be the case."

McKeown is partly right - the founding fathers did not want a United States free from religion, but what they did want was a government free from religion. This is not a lawsuit against the cross or Christianity, as McKeown deceptively tries to portray it, but this is a lawsuit against government showing favor to religion, and the founders were very clear in their denouncement of just such a thing. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," the first amendment states. Giving $20,000 of taxpayer money to restore a giant cross is most certainly violating this clause.

It never ceases to amaze me how little understanding or regard some Christians seem to have for separation of church and state. Imagine how irate believers would be if the mosque proposed at Ground Zero in New York City was also accompanied by a $20,000 grant from the state! This is why religion and government must be kept separate, because if we can't accommodate them all (and no, we can't do that), then the only reasonable course is to take a neutral/secular position. Not to mention that taxpayers generally don't like their money being put to uses they disagree with.

Whatever happened to a good ol' fashioned church bake sale, by the way? Religion is great at fundraisers (pass around that collection plate one more time, Billy!), so let them finance their own restoration projects for their own religious monuments.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Clerk Shares Jesus With Robber

The press certainly loves its stories of courageous Christians. A headline news video on Yahoo today tells of how a clerk shared Jesus with a man who was attempting to rob the store. It wasn't that long ago that the story of another clerk praying with a robber became the inspirational talking point of many believers, raving about how God can do anything and always looks out for his people. But I have to wonder, how many clerks have been shot or robbed even after trying to witness to a criminal? Will we ever see a headline, "Clerk Shot in the Face After Preaching to Robber"? Not likely... except in The Onion, perhaps.

I see this sort of feel-good story in the same way I see the reports of miraculous survivals against the odds. When someone suffering from a terminal illness lives and attributes it to God, the other countless unlucky persons are usually never allowed to give their side of the story. Mostly because no god came through to save them. Likewise, for every tale of a courageous believer foiling a criminal's plans by ministering to them, there are countless dozens of unlucky others who were killed despite their efforts. Missionaries die all the time despite their efforts, and yet this is never counted as a strike against faith.

Maybe this blog entry will seem callous and heartless to some people, but it's worth asking why we count the hits and ignore the misses often times. I suspect that we don't count things fairly because we fear what the results might reveal to us. Random, indiscriminate circumstances. Then again, doesn't the bible say that God sends rain on both the righteous and the wicked? So what's all this nonsense about thinking that God's tweaking knobs behind every corner?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Awe of Nature, Enhanced by Science

The poet William Blake wrote that, "Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death." I have known some who hold a similar disdain for inquiry and investigation into the significances of life. Mystery and mysticism are good and necessary, they say, and science supposedly dissolves them. Blake penned the line just mentioned in reflection on the theory of optics put forward by Isaac Newton, which he considered a gross inadequacy compared to his idea of 'spiritual vision'. Does a scientific lens truly reduce wonder and inspiration? Does it strip beauty and vandalize mystery?

I was out on my back porch the other day, admiring the butterflies and hummingbirds that occasionally congregate around the vegetation. Over the steps that lead from the deck to the grass, there is a wireframe arch that we've decorated with plant and flower growth. I noticed that under this arch, hanging in empty space, was some object or unlucky insect. As I moved closer, I could see the bright wings of a butterfly. I planned a rescue mission, but further inspection revealed that the wings and a thin veil of a carcass were all that remained.

My initial thought was not sorrow, but wonder. The spider that weaved its web in this manner had cleverly placed it in a spot that was obscured by shade, and also happened to be an area where butterflies routinely passed through on their way to draw nectar from the plants hanging off the sides of the wireframe arch. Years ago, as a Christian, I might have pondered the artistic hand that made such a skilled arachnid. I would have also thought of the puzzling mind of God, that would create animals in constant competition with one another. But that thought would only linger a second, before I'd abandon its implications and reassure myself that God has a plan.

Now, however, I pondered the skills of the arachnid, not as those instilled by a 'benevolent' god, but as a product of progressive adaptation. Spiders have had millions of years to perfect their craft, I thought to myself. They are, along with insects, one of the oldest surviving species. Rather than deprive my mind of wonder and awe, this sudden reflection brought an increased appreciation. To think that these creatures were playing their game of cat and mouse so many centuries before humans even arrived on the scene... was a moment of amazement for me. Then to think we are all distant cousins, originating from single-celled organisms some 3-4 billion years ago... I fail to see how this is not a humbling and fascinating fact to understand.

Science does so much more than just unlock the mysteries of nature, it creates them too. If we were to leave mystery untouched, we would be all the less prevalent in mysteries! Scientists like Galileo unleashed whole new worlds of wonder in studying the telescopic beauty of the night sky and the microscopic beauty of smaller organisms. The discovery of the atom brought a new age of wonder too. Are these not worth marveling over?

There will always be mystery and beauty to be found, no matter how ruthlessly science advances into explaining the unexplained phenomena of the universe. Our time on this earth has been breathtakingly brief when compared to the 14 billion years that our universe has been expanding and changing for. And it is STILL expanding and changing! New sources of mystique and wonder can never be eliminated, because evolution is a never-ending process. Even if we humans run ourselves into extinction, life will go on. It has proven itself very flexible, able to spring up even in the most hostile environments (we call these critters 'extremophiles').

When I look at a brilliant sunset, I feel no emptiness or loss of meaning to think that it is the result of atmospheric gases and light, as opposed to the painting of an artist who can also put vicious storms in the sky that decimate entire cities. In fact, I find it more mysterious to think there is a natural explanation than a supernatural one. Where is the room for deep and honest contemplation in an explanation like 'God did it'? Theists don't generally seem to believe that God will reveal how he did it, and besides, the point of faith is believing that he did it - the how doesn't matter so much.

Science is not the tree of death, it is, more literally than figuratively, the tree of life. But it is also art, and this is woefully overlooked by William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and so many other great poets and philosophers. Science is an expression of all humankind to understand its surroundings, but more importantly, to understand itself. That's not to say that science is subjective or may not reflect reality, but the point is that the desire (or dare I say 'need') to understand ourselves and our environment is as much a form of art as any music, film, or illustration that strives for the same ends.

The tree of death is fear. Fear that will squelch progress and inquisitiveness in the name of prized dogmas or sacred beliefs that are too weak and static to survive change. But change is everywhere and no amount of fear will permanently bring its persistence to a halt. This is why science threatens the absolutist and antiquated values of many people, in my opinion, because it not only changes preconceptions, but it is the study of change. For those clinging to an idealized past, scientific advancement will spell certain doom. Yet a good part of wonder, awe, and beauty is often the unknown, and if change yields anything, it is a new frontier and a fresh new set of possibilities.

This is why I am in awe of nature, and that awe is only enhanced by science.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No, Really, What's Wrong With Prostitutes?

I recently got into a discussion with a young Muslim girl who seemed absolutely astonished to find that I see no reason to demean or insult prostitutes. The discussion originated from a classy comment she made about how Muslim women are not prostitutes like the women in the West (showing your arms and legs is a huge offense, ladies!). My response to this girl was to challenge her conception of how people dress in the West, but also to ask what's wrong with prostitutes. Predictably, her answer was more of shock and disbelief than anything else.

But what is wrong with prostitutes? Why does choosing to make a living from sex automatically make you a dirty or immoral person, according to some people? We sell so much else about ourselves that no one seems to protest. We sell our time, our appearance (in the fashion industry, for example), our intellectual property (thoughts), our bodies (i.e. medical testing), and so much more, but selling sexual interaction is too 'sacred'?

Personally I think the thoughts in our head are more sacred and intimate than sexual interaction, but we sell them anyway, and I believe this is as it should be in the free market. If you have a good idea, what's wrong with selling it to someone else? If you're good at something, why not put that skill to use for a living? We all want to do this in one way or another, and for prostitutes, their talent happens to be sex.

There are negative aspects to prostitution undoubtedly, but these stem more from it being illegal then the simple act of prostitution itself. Abusive pimps are a problem, but in Nevada, where prostitution is legal, there is no such threat. Sexually transmitted diseases are not such an issue either, as each girl is regularly tested. Just as with consensual sex involving no money, prostitution can be safe or it can be dangerous, depending on the people involved and the choices that are made.

I have never been to see a prostitute, and I would probably never spend money to get something I can find for free (most of the time, lol), but I will not judge those who decide otherwise, because that is their decision, not mine. If we have the right to put alcohol and other harmful substances into our bodies, I think that should be taken to its logical conclusion - that we have the right to do anything we like with our bodies, whether we pay for it or not. This is the most basic right that we have as human beings, and to deprive us of it is to invite tyranny into our lives.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Screw the Unemployed, Businesses Say

According to a recent article on Huffington Post, several companies are adopting hiring policies that exclude the unemployed from consideration. As an HR rep from The People Place explains in the article,

"It's our preference that [applicants] currently be employed... with the economy being what it is, we've had a lot of people contact us that don't have the skill sets we want, so we try to minimize the amount of time we spent on that and try to rifle-shoot the folks we're interested in."

In other words, this company apparently thinks that unfortunately jobless people are likely to have a work ethic and skills that are below those of employed people. Not only is this archaic thinking in the economic recession of today that has left thousands of good and hardworking people unemployed, but I think we all have had lazy or incompetent co-workers that sufficiently disprove this assumption.

If an employer is not willing to give perfectly qualified candidates a chance, simply because they are not currently working, then they are contributing to the unemployment rate they discriminate against, and that is just plain bullshit. It reminds me of other nonsense I've seen in job postings, like requiring a degree for an office assistant position, as though it takes four years of college to figure out a fax machine or copier. I understand that companies want experienced and reliable workers, but all of us had to start somewhere and even CEOs weren't born into their job.

I don't believe there should be laws against these kinds of discrimination, but it does baffle me that there are job ads like this, even if they are from smaller companies. It's so counter-intuitive: the unemployment rate cannot improve unless the unemployed are given jobs!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Appeals to Authority

I just recently finished reading Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? by Norman Golb. Golb's thesis is that the manuscripts found in the Qumran caves are not the work of the Essene sect, or of any single sect at all, but that they are the manuscripts of the Jewish community itself, stored in caves for protection during the First Jewish-Roman War. The general consensus of scholarship on the Dead Sea Scrolls has identified them as Essene writings since they were found in the 1940s, and although Golb exposes dozens of holes in their theory and masterfully argues for his own with a wealth of evidence, his contentions were largely dismissed and neglected for years.

The reason I bring this up is that it's a perfect example of when scholarly authority goes wrong. Even when the proof can be right directly under a person's nose, they may still miss it or deny it. In the book, Golb illustrates a number of ways in which the prevailing Dead Sea Scrolls authorities (Roland de Vaux and his team) suppress alternative theories and play media games to destroy the reputations of their opponents. The movie Expelled is a farce, to be sure, but the fight for the Dead Sea Scrolls is just that type of 'academic conspiracy'. It's astonishing to me the lengths people will go to in order to defend their pet theories, but it certainly does happen.

Appeals to authority can be dangerous oversights. One of the major criticisms leveled at Golb was that his theory was outside the mainstream opinion of the academia. In other words, 'all these experts say this, so how can they be wrong and you be right?' I hear this same sort of thing when I question the historicity of Jesus. Popular consensus does not make any idea correct though, what matters is the evidence that the consensus is formed upon. In the case of Jesus, the evidence is very slim and very suspicious, and when the 'authorities' on him are often theologians with a deeply vested interest in the historical reality of Christ, it's easy to see why appeals to authority have to be taken with a grain of salt most times.

There is something to be said for authority opinion, however. Generally speaking, you want to learn or be assisted by those who are qualified in the issue at hand. You probably wouldn't trust a plumber to advise you knowledgeably on open-heart surgery. This is part of the reason I don't trust preachers to discuss evolution from a knowledgeable standpoint. I'm not saying that everyone needs to have a degree to have an opinion on something, because many people do take their own time to research subjects they have an interest in. That doesn't mean they are as well informed as they like to think though, especially if their 'research' has been limited mostly to one side of the issue.

So authority opinion only goes so far. When it comes to evolution vs. creationism, I will give more weight to the opinion of a biologist, simply because they have made a career - often times a life's work - out of studying nature, not just from a layman's perspective, but from an objective and methodical perspective. What ultimately matters, though, is evidence. For this reason, I always try to steer clear of appeals to authority when I'm making a case for evolution to those who are unsure of it. Noting that 99% of scientists agree with evolutionary theory is like saying that Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein agreed with the theory of gravity. It's nice to know, but it doesn't really mean much unless you explain why there is this agreement.

It's tempting to point to the consesus of authorities, because it's usually so much easier and much less time-consuming than learning the evidence for yourself and knowing how to express it to others. But I find it infinitely more respectable to have a discussion with someone who can make their own statements, rather than someone who makes generalized appeals to authority. I find it frustrating when a person I'm debating with offers up a book as evidence for their viewpoint. 'Have you read The Case for Christ? It addresses all your questions.' If I haven't read the book, am I expected to go read it and suspend conversation until then? Even if I have read it, I'll lose some respect for someone who relies on others to do the thinking and debating for them. (I have read the book, and no, it doesn't answer anything!)

It's definitely worth it to learn the evidence and the argumentation for yourself, I'd say. It's more rewarding intellectually, it generates more respect, and it's the only real way to be persuasive. Appeals to authority do have an appropriate context, but I will never swap critical thinking for them, nor should anyone else.

Friday, April 9, 2010

The Necessity to Explain and Believe

One thing I had to come to grips with on my own journey to atheism was our apparent necessity as human beings to try and explain things we don't quite understand. It seems to be imprinted on our genetics. I've met many people who will explain away even the slightest things as the 'work of God' - things like getting a new job, a new date, debts paid off, etc. It willfully strips the individual of their own choices and freedom, giving an invisible deity all the credit. Likewise, some people will answer the big question of why we are here with something such as 'to praise God' or 'serve Jesus'. It often astounds me how people come to such rapid conclusions when:
1. The existence of that god must be proven first before we can say anything related to what he enjoys or requires from us.
2. A god of such omnipotence and omniscience (which goes for just about every religion; I mean, who wants to worship an impotent deity?) must be even more improbable than that which he is postulated to solve.

I was surprised yesterday to hear a Christian completely admit, without me even saying a word, that in a sense God must not exist. Why? When you consider God to be the creator of all things, the uncaused cause, then he has created everything, brought everything into existence, including existence itself. I never fully understood the question of "who created God" until I learned that. Did he bring himself into existence? No, he's always been? Already this god sounds more complex than the simple loving deity you hear about in church. How can we really expect to have his written word or hear from a being so unbelievably and confusingly unknown to us?

To me, using God as a cop-out for our own origins is not only avoiding the question, its complicating it. I don't pretend to understand all the specifics of how the Big Bang could've occurred and produced life in a godless universe, but adding an infinite being of God's sort to the equation only seems to raise more questions and make things a lot less simpler. Now, on the other hand, I don't feel like life has no meaning when you cease to believe in the supernatural, or that it adopts radical relativism. As an atheist, I get asked that question more than anything else: so if there's no God, why are we here? Why not just do anything you want? I still believe we have a moral responsibility and we have a purpose. The only difference is, that morality is defined by what benefits our race, not what benefits a god, and our purpose is one which we make ourselves. Even monkeys have a kind of ethical code in their social groups, and those who violate it are often punished by the rest of the group.

As for purpose, I think we all feel the need to love and be loved, regardless of what religion or beliefs we hold (or do not hold). I know that sounds pretty hippy-ish, but find me a person on this earth who doesn't want love and acceptance of some kind, whether from a deity or another person. I've often heard people say that life without God leaves a void in you that can't be filled with anything but faith, and I declare the opposite. You can't fill a loveless life with God. It's feigned love, an empty kind that is basically a form of schizophrenic love. That is why you see celibate priests doing all kinds of sexually immoral things. We are not made to force resistance of our natural instincts.

And so there I fall into the trap myself, of feeling the need to explain things to others. Is that such a bad thing though? I think not. You should invite discourse and be confident enough to share your beliefs. I hold that against no man or woman of faith, and indeed it commands some amount of respect for those who openly discuss things of such personal importance, knowing full well that it may be challenged.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Soul Mates

I have to question why it is such a widely held belief that we all have a soul mate, or one specific person who we are destined to be with or, as some believe, made for. Even some of my other non-religious friends think soul mates exist. Why is this not seen as a happily ever after fairytale when so many marriages end in divorce? What if your spouse dies, are you allowed to marry again, or does that violate the single soul mate theory? I have known good faithful people who have gone through divorces and end up assuming their ex just wasn't the one for them, yet instead of realizing that the whole idea of exclusive true love is crap, they insist on trying again. Why get to know anyone else at all if you're holding out for that one special person?

No one is perfect. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out, and yet I've known women and men (though I can hardly consider them to be more than girls and boys) who seem to think their ideal mate is waiting out there, flawless, and eager to pamper and please them at their every whim. Soul mate probably means something different to different people, but the main idea is that somewhere out there is a person right for you... and only one person. You don't hear many people talk about their second or third soul mate. That kind of defeats the concept of a soul mate. I agree that there is a person out there who is right for you, but why just one who you are destined to be tied to for eternity and live happily ever after with? Wouldn't it be more exciting to think that there is more than just one individual who may be right for you - that you have a deeper connection with humanity than someone who can only find one person that's right for them, out of countless billions?

Without getting on my soapbox about religion and spirituality, I will note that the first problem created by the idea of soul mates is in the first word of it. Define the soul and prove it exists before trying to claim one other soul is the only soul for you. What if the soul is not such a metaphysical entity; what if it's more like our entire personality produced by our brains and hearts working together? It may make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside to think you have someone special set aside for you who will complete you and never leave you... but get over yourself. Shit happens. Expect it to. Nelson Mandela said, "the greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall". Life goes on. The joy of it is getting to know and love so many diverse personalities.

Before you start to think I'm making a case for whorishness (isn't that a fun word), let me say this: what is wrong with loving many other people? We have this idea of monogamy pounded into our heads, and is it really a good or superior societal standard than polygamy... but that's for another blog. I'm not advocating free sex like during the Sixties, I'm simply arguing against the notion that we are all bound to one single person for our entire life. Some people use the word "soul mate" just as a fun, affectionate term without serious connotations, which I feel is not the best word, but that use really strips it of it's meaning anyway.

So what is love worth without soul mates? A lot, if not even more. I'm not going to give the cold-hearted lecture about how we are all just like apes trying to spread our genes, driven by natural selection. Life and love are more than that, but we are the ones who make it more. The ability to learn to love different types of people in different ways, to find comfort in intimacy, to relieve whatever hurt may be in our lives... why is it bad to tend to such things outside wedlock or with more than one partner? Religion can't explain why it's bad, they can just tell you God says it's bad. I also know it's not sexy to tell someone, "if I wouldn't have met you, I would've just found someone else", but maybe it doesn't need to be said. We all know it's true, whether we admit it or not.

Love is not some profound spiritual wonder, but it's not so great when dissected by science and rigid logic either. It's as natural as breathing, and if you suppress it too much or breathe too hard and too fast (yes, I'm clever, aren't I), you'll tire yourself pretty quickly. The soul mates idea is unrealistic and not as good as it sounds. It was probably conceived by people who were desperate, like us, to feel some kind of eternal and unconditional love, and while it would be nice, we are better off without it sometimes, so that we are motivated to give the love we desire to feel in return. All I'm saying now, and all I've ever really been saying, is enjoy your life while you can. Don't live for today or for tomorrow, just live period. Real love won't mind sharing, I think, and it will recognize the vanity of putting artificial restraints on who we allow ourselves, or each other, to get close to.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Unholy Survival of the Catholic Church

There's really no disputing that the Roman Catholic Church has a very bloody and corrupt legacy. From indulgences to the inquisition, hardly a century has gone by in which the RCC has not committed some unpardonable sin. In the 20th century there was both the church's involvement with Nazism and the child abuse scandal. Now in the 21st century there is upheaval within the RCC's own congregation, as Catholics have expressed disdain for the church's anti-gay stance, as well as it's ridiculous policy on contraception.

What amazes me is how the Catholic Church stays afloat. Sure, they have quite a fortune and quite an empire constructed at Vatican City, but the church will not stay in business for long if its central customers desert it. There are statistics that point to a decline in the number of priests, nuns, confessions, and parishioners, but I'm still surprised that the church exists today. The child abuse scandal broke in 2002 and was no trivial matter confined to a few fringe individuals. Eight years later and there are still many people who are proud to be Catholic and eager to defend the faith.

The pedophilia scandal has been driven into the ground for years now, and yet it hasn't produced the effect I expected from such a widespread announcement. There is overwhelming evidence that thousands of Catholic priests, throughout the globe, molested young children, and there is equally significant evidence that the RCC relocated these priests and participated in a general cover-up of the problem. Instead of taking responsibility for all of this and doing what is necessary to correct the issue, the Vatican has largely blamed the scandal on homosexuality. When Pope Benedict was charged with helping to cover up a case of abuse among three boys in Texas, he requested and received diplomatic immunity from George W. Bush.

Christians have sometimes remarked about the "miracle" that must have occurred for the early church to have survived the persecutions of Nero and other adversaries. If the persistent survival of the RCC tells us anything, it is that beliefs die hard - even those that are associated with some extremely reprehensible scandals. Why would you want to belong to a church that has such a longstanding tradition of secrecy, corruption, and bloodshed, as the Catholic Church does? Some might have thought all that was left in the past when Vatican II arrived, but the RCC has proven that it can still be a force for great harm that has the ability to pull the wool over peoples' eyes.

What will the future hold for the RCC? Will it fade out slowly? There may be a decline going on, but not many people seem that disturbed by the child abuse scandal. If a multinational corporation, with a long history of trust earned with its consumers, had a similar scandal to the RCC, I think the company would have gone bankrupt quite some time ago. I don't think people are disgusted enough at the behavior of the Vatican. It's not just the child abuse cases, it's the homophobic hatred that has led the RCC to stop funding charities in Washington, for fear of money going toward homosexual couples that want to be foster parents. It's the irrational opposition to condoms that tells Africans that unprotected sex is better than protected sex, contributing to more growth of the AIDS epidemic.

I have to say, I wouldn't be sorry to see the RCC go. Some Catholics have defended the church by mentioning its numerous charities around the world, but as just shown, they are willing to suspend charity (I didn't know one could do such a thing with a truly charitable cause) when their ideological demands are not met. Additionally, it could be argued that the stain left by the RCC in human history is too deep and too dark even for all of their good-will efforts to wash out. They may not have paid much attention to Jesus' denouncements of wealth in the bible, but perhaps they can at least follow his example in one way: they can sacrifice themselves for the sake of all the lives they have scarred in the past, and in order to save all the lives they might scar in the future. Close down the church, sell off all its property, and give the money to the needy. After all, that's what the RCC claims to be about, isn't it?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Only Good Horoscopes

I'm not one for astrology, except when it's the kind found in the pages of The Onion. Twice now I have read hilariously ironic horoscopes for myself in the paper. Enjoy...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

We the People Politicians and Corporations

The American government has not been 'for the people' or 'by the people' for a long time now, but the clearest sign of this downfall comes from a recent poll revealing that a whopping 80% of Americans dislike the Supreme Court's decision to allow corporations to financially back political candidates. You've probably heard that 'absolute power corrupts absolutely,' and there are three powers in America that threaten our liberties and well-being more than anything else: religion, government, and business. Meshing corporate interests with political interests is a dangerous game, from which we should have learned a lesson long ago in fiascoes like Enron. Did the Supreme Court suddenly forget the banking crisis too? Let's pump more money and influence into Wall Street's amoral veins, in the name of free enterprise.

If we as citizens want our rights preserved, showing up at town hall meetings and whining about big government will do no good. We need to watch out for big business intruding into our lives too, as well as religion. I think Sarah Palin is entirely right that America is ready for a revolution, but her vision for it will trample our freedoms just as severely as any imposition of big government. The revolution we should look forward to is one that will remove the shackles altogether, not trade one master for another.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Some Believers Still Hate Dissent to Their Faith

I live in a pretty conservative neighborhood. You can still see some McCain campaign signs in yards and even Bush 2004 and "W" bumper stickers on some cars. Around Christmas time, I inevitably see a few cars with "Keep Christ in Christmas" stickers. As you can imagine from this information, decorating my car with bumper stickers that oppose the common ignorance of the masses is a risky venture. I've gone ahead and done it anyway though, multiple times. And my car has been vandalized for it, multiple times.

Nothing too extreme like actual damage to the vehicle, but I have had bumper stickers torn off my car twice, and a plaque torn off once. I think about this often when I see conservative and religious stuff on cars in my area, and I think it reveals some uncomfortable truths about the way some people still think of disbelief in America. My two defaced stickers were quite innocent. One simply said, "Atheists believe in people" and the other read, "Don't believe in god? You are not alone."

The first sticker was ripped completely off. What kind of mentality would lead someone to take at offense at something so positive though? Does the mere association of atheism with humanitarianism piss off certain people that much? It's kind of hard to believe, so at first I figured the sticker had fallen off in the rain or something.

Then my other sticker was messed with. It wasn't torn completely off, but the first word was peeled away. What a clever message to send, "believe in god? You are not alone." It's not as though 85% of the freaking world isn't already aware of this. It's not like atheists aren't continually reminded by theists that our position is in the minority. What a wonderful testament it is to deface someone else's property in the name of your faith.

I'll admit: after having those two very positive and very unoffensive messages on my car destroyed, I went for something more edgy. I went with a plaque of a Darwin fish eating the Jesus fish with "Reality Bites" in the middle. I'm really not surprised that it offended people, but I am surprised that someone waited behind my car and took the time to pry it off. Have you ever tried to get one of those little plaques off? It doesn't come off easy. I woke up the next morning and went out to my car and found the plaque missing, which means some asshole found the energy and the time to remove it from my car, which was parked right in front of my home.

I have some friends who persistently try to tell me that religious fundamentalism is not a big issue in America anymore, and it annoys the hell out of me, quite honestly. I don't know what else besides fundamentalist you would call people who so hate your dissent to their faith that they will snatch anything resembling it off your car. I think Christianity is dangerous nonsense, but you don't see me going around and peeling off religious bumper stickers or prying fish plaques off anyone's cars. The funny thing to me is that these jerks probably think their faith has the moral high ground when tearing off stickers that say, "Atheists believe in people."

Fundamentalism is not dead, it's only retreated more into the shadows. It has to, with the ever-advancing threat of science and our culture realizing more and more the outdated nature of ancient holy books. There is no progress in fundamentalism. All it can hope for these days is a disaster, when its proponents can voice their absurd views and declare punishment is upon us for daring to think forward and not reverting to bronze age myths. And maybe this is why bumper stickers matter to these people. They have few other means for getting themselves the attention they crave.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

My Appearance in a Way of the Master Video

In September of last year, I did a YouTube video about Ray Comfort's heinous publication of a 150th anniversary edition of The Origin of Species with a 50-page introduction of his own authorship, as well as several missing passages from the original content of the book, testified to by numerous sources. Now it looks like my video caught the attention of Ray, because it has been brought to my attention that the newest video from the Way of the Master channel on YouTube features a clip from my video. Go watch my 5 seconds of "fame", which can be found at about 1 minute in. A few of my subscribers have emailed me with congratulations of sorts.

What do I think of it? I'm not exactly sure. I don't know whether to feel complimented or insulted, though I'm certainly leaning toward the latter. The whole point of the Way of the Master video is to brag about the exposure that Ray's deceptive little plot received. He did seem to miss the fact that the entire incident has elicited mockery and laughter from most people, but Ray strikes me as a man who thinks any publicity is good publicity. And maybe it is for Christian fundamentalist whackjobs like himself. They must have some audience to still be in business. For that reason, I'm not too happy to be part of his lying propaganda in any manner.

To me, Ray Comfort is the perfect example of how Christian ministers compare to used car salesmen. They both dress cheap products like essential wonders, employing sleazy smooth-talk to distract from the many serious problems under the hood. In the new video, you see Ray and Kirk handing out their books on college campuses, shouting out "free Origin of Species, free Darwin book!" Then just a few seconds later, the video narration explains how great it is that the gospel was shared with those students. Funny that Kirk and Ray never mentioned that while handing out the books. Good thing there's not a commandment about bearing false testimony, right? Ray loves using the Ten Commandments everywhere in his ministry, so if there were such a commandment, that would be pretty embarrassing!