Our World at Odds

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

We live in an amazing time. A time when we can increase our understanding of the cosmos by studying still-visible distant stars in the night sky. A time when we carry miniature computers in our pockets that are vastly more powerful than the ones which aided the 1969 lunar landing. We are presently able to understand bacteria and employ medicine to prevent the spread of horrific diseases. Yet, despite our scientific achievements, many people still refute the evidence and claim to know better than the scientists. Science and religion are increasingly at odds with one another – with science providing factual, peer-reviewed evidence, and religion offering nothing more than “faith” to support its claims, stubbornly persisting in its bronze age philosophy. The only time scientific advancement is controversial is when it contradicts the bible, and there is no valid reason that discoveries which benefit all of humankind should be met with such resistance.

As science continues to make new discoveries and bring us greater understanding of our world, it takes credibility away from the bible. It reveals the bible stories to be just that – stories: simple explanations for previously unexplainable phenomena. However, once an event has an explanation that is testable and found to be unfalsifiable, it is then a scientific theory and does not require a story to try and make sense of it. Science is not maliciously attacking the bible or its adherents; it is only showing that we have a better understanding of our environment than our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago.

In recent news of Hurricane Isaac, I have observed that there are still some commonplace superstitions today. I came across an article quoting a Katrina survivor named Margaret Thomas, “Isaac is the son of Abraham, it’s a special name that means ‘God will protect us’.” As if God had anything to do with naming the hurricane. The WMO (staffed by humans, for the record) maintains a set of six recurring lists of Atlantic tropical storm names, each containing 21 names alternating between masculine and feminine. In the event that a tropical storm reaches hurricane status it will keep the name (e.g. Tropical storm Isaac becomes Hurricane Isaac), and if that hurricane leaves extensive damage and/or deaths in its wake, then the name is retired and replaced with another beginning with the same letter. However, in the mindset of a believer isn’t God the one who is responsible for creating the hurricane? This contradicts Mrs. Thomas’s logic, meaning “God will protect us from God.”

Nature is indifferent to us, and does not care what we perceive as property damage or loss. Nature is nature, and will do what it does whether we are in its path or not.

NBC news shows a woman named Lisa Haywood leaving New Orleans because she doesn’t trust the $14.5-billion levee and drainage pump system built by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect the city from another flood: “I have faith in God, I don’t have faith in those walls.” (Video Clip, beginning at 1:55) Once again, in the believer’s mindset, isn’t God the one responsible for the hurricane in the first place? I personally find it a little rude that she would say she has faith in the one who could be said to have created the storm in the first place, but doesn’t have confidence in the system put in place to protect her and the rest of the city from said entity.

Through the science of meteorology we have gained an understanding of how weather works, and what we can do to prepare for it. Wind and cloud formations are monitored by satellite, and once a hurricane has been confirmed the data is used to create a computer model and predict the course it shall take. If we can place confidence in the science that warns us of an approaching storm, shouldn’t we also believe that same science when it explains how the storm began and what we can do to prepare for it? If the storm were indeed caused by this alleged ‘God’ fellow, it seems to me that such an all-powerful being ought to be able to target sinful individuals in need of a good smiting rather than groups, or at least protect the innocent from the punishment which is intended for their neighbors… and why is it that his punishments are only able to come in the form of natural weather patterns? Why not a hurricane in Alaska, or a hail storm in Ecuador? Maybe we could forgo the weather bit entirely and He could make a personal appearance to express his disapproval of humankind like a grown-up?

Denial of scientific evidence has been troubling many of our big thinkers these days, including Bill Nye who has attracted quite a bit of attention from a recent Big Think video, entitled “Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. At the time of this writing, the video has 4.4-million views and has attracted 155k comments, mostly from “experts” (i.e. common people who do not have a degree in science) claiming that he is stupid and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is common; people of this ilk tend to proclaim indisputable knowledge to all of life’s mysteries based on an ancient document, despite scientific research and mounds of evidence to the contrary. For the record, a degree in Theology does not make a scientifically literate individual, and for a layman to contradict what an actual scientist is saying seems a bit like a first grader confidently arguing with his teacher that Q comes after S in the English alphabet, or like a junkie giving sound financial advice to Warren Buffett.

The beauty of these comments is that they are supporting the points that the Science Guy is making in his video.

The creationist’s alleged proof of evolution being falsified is insubstantial, and is merely denial passed on from their pastors and preachers. However, everything that we know about biology today hinges on, and supports the theory of evolution. There are only two reasons to deny this theory: 1) You don’t understand what evolution is or how it works, and 2) It contradicts an idea that you are emotionally attached to.

The way I see it, science and religion are at odds because science has removed the foundation that the House of God was built upon. We all know, and can agree that a house cannot levitate off the ground…so if the foundation suddenly disappears it will fall. Science’s impact on this foundation is like the old tablecloth trick being performed by an untrained showboat – the tablecloth will surely be removed, but it’s going to be a little messy. You don’t want to be in this house when it comes crashing down in the absence of its foundation, so my advice is to pack up your things and move into something a little more stable that will protect you for many more years to come. Oh, and get hurricane insurance if that new place happens to be on the coast.

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Everything Happens For a Reason

August 27, 2012 4 comments

“Everything happens for a reason”
is what we often hear from believers who want to make themselves feel better about a bad situation. Perhaps they recently lost their job, or a loved one has passed away, or something has lead up to an injury preventing their participation in an event. Whatever the case may be, this is what they say and this is what they believe.

This is not divine intervention. Everything that occurs does have a cause, but this cause does not have a Godly benevolence behind it.

If one were to lose his/her job, this could be initiated by burnout, leading to poor performance which then goes unimproved despite warnings and eventually leads to dismissal. This causes the individual to search for a new job, and once employed, the new job is perceived as better in the absence of burnout. But once the monotony from a couple of years in the position kicks in, we would be likely to find this person back at point A. Thus, losing the first job clearly did not happen because God wanted the person to be happier in the new job.

In the case of a loved one passing away, this is a very unfortunate situation, but it is not God calling them up to Heaven with a 93% passing grade on their Earthly test. En cada caso, closer examination of the situation would reveal the cause to be old age, organ failure, or disease. In extreme cases, perhaps even murder… but we don’t often think of armed assailants as angels here to pick us up and chauffeur us to the great beyond, now do we? Incarcerated angels would likely find a way to escape prior to electrocution or lethal injection. Again, God did not have a mysterious reason for the demise.

How about the injury scenario? Supposing one were scheduled to participate in a marathon run and accidentally broke his/her foot days before the event – we could entertain the notion that the marathon could have lead to greater injury or death; perhaps a random bear attack in the wilderness, or maybe a drunk driver careening through the mountain pass could have hit the runner… or, if the accident causing the broken foot were any indication of the runner’s grace, maybe he would have fallen off a cliff. The most likely scenario is that the broken foot was caused by clumsiness, either on the part of the runner or another person’s blunder wounding him. The timing is merely coincidental, being days before the marathon. An almighty deity capable of doing this could protect against a greater incident in the run without breaking bones to prevent participation.

This is all causality, and people tend to assign agency to the events to give them a greater meaning.

Suppose I found myself involved in a high-stakes game of Pool, and the prize for victory is $1,000. I have nearly beaten my opponent, who still has two balls on the table – both of which are in between the cue ball and the eight-ball that I need to sink. My strategy is to jump the cue ball over the opponent’s balls and strike the eight-ball at such an angle as to send it spinning diagonally into the corner pocket. First, I must possess the skill to execute this shot, and secondly I must pull it off perfectly; if I don’t strike the cue ball in the precise location to initiate the jump and put enough spin on the ball to achieve enough forward-motion to transfer its inertia to the eight-ball at the exact angle to send it into the corner pocket, then I could lose the game… and the $1,000 prize.

If I do not make the shot, I have only myself to blame for attempting such a tricky move, and for failing to execute it flawlessly. I would not say “God wanted me to lose this game to teach me humility.” God has nothing to do with it – physics does. The ball has a cause for motion, and that is the cue striking it. If God had any say in the outcome, the cue would be a useless stick and I could simply pray for the eight-ball to find its way to the corner pocket. Not only would this not work, but there would likely be something in the rulebook about forfeiting by means of invoking God’s hand to win unfairly.

“But God helps those who help themselves!” we hear in protest to arguments such as these. If I do all the work, and through my own efforts I achieve the expected results by completing the task, this is only a causal effect with nothing supernatural about it. It’s a bit unfair that such a supreme being would make others do all the hard work and then claim all the credit for it. We have people like that here on Earth and we call them ‘Douchebags’, or sometimes ‘Bosses’.

If one were to pray prior to going to a job interview, and then get the job as a result of giving good answers to the questions, there is no indication of God at work here. However, if this applicant were to pray in lieu of attending the interview, and then get a phone call congratulating him on the new position and asking him to start early Monday morning, then we would have something to talk about. For the record, I’ve never heard of this happening. Ever.

With all this in mind, maybe… just maybe… this post has happened because it is my charge from this so-called ‘God’ to help His followers open their eyes and give a serious, critical look at their silly beliefs and superstitions. The sooner we can all understand causality and accept that we are the masters of our own destiny, the sooner we can move on and achieve greater things.

Things happen because we make them happen. If we do something, or don’t do anything at all, things will continue to happen around us with or without our influence. Everything does indeed happen for a reason, and that reason is causality.

Why an Atheist Cares

I received a question on Twitter the other day, in response to my agreeing with a fellow atheist on the topic of enthusiastic atheists tending to know more about religion than the believers of the faith themselves.

Why obsess over religion if you care not for it????

“Why obsesses over religion if you care not for it?” The hashtag of #JustCurious warrants an answer. I am more than happy to take the time out to answer an honest question.

First, asking this question of an adamant atheist activist is akin to asking a cancer patient why he obsesses over chemotherapy if he doesn’t care for cancer. Or asking a diabetic why he obsesses over checking his blood sugar if he doesn’t care for diabetes. This comparison may sound absurd, but it really isn’t. Cancer patients undergo chemotherapy and other rigorous treatments at great expense to their well-being, hoping to one day return to normal life conditions. A diabetic who doesn’t monitor his blood sugar risks blindness, loss of limbs, and even death. A concerned non-believer who doesn’t attempt to keep religion in check risks the loss of his/her personal freedom, the stagnation of science, technology, medicine, or humanity as a whole, and – depending upon the religion – death as an infidel.

It has been said that not all religions can be right, but they can all be wrong. I can’t stress enough that all religions have their foundation in primitive explanations for how the natural world works, and are expanded upon by a basic human fear of one’s own mortality. Without the question “What happens when I die?” the need for God dissipates. I can’t speak for all atheists, but from my own perspective I view religion as a threat to every free person’s lifestyle.

If you are Jewish, Christian or Hindu (among many more), we can share the same common concern of Islam taking over and declaring Sharia law. Under Sharia law, the penalty for converting to another religion or apostasy is death. What this means for any non-Muslim is that you either convert or die. There is no tolerance for not accepting Allah as the one true God, and there is no opting-out. Commonly in Islamic countries, women have very limited rights. They must adhere to a very strict dress code, and many are frequently denied higher education, the right to vote, or simple privileges such as using a cell phone or going about in public unescorted by a male chaperone. Punishments are often harsh, and can include removal of body parts (Nose, hands, etc.)

Islam is said by many of its adherents to be a religion of peace, but as Sam Harris points out in The End of Faith, Islam has bloody borders. Islamic countries are nearly always at war with their neighbors, trying to spread out and expand their territories and increase their numbers. Just look at Belgium today.

Christians believe that Jesus was/is the son of God, but many Hindus believe the man called Jesus was just an avatar of Vishnu. “Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth.” (Gita:4.7), so of course Jesus was Vishnu…It makes perfect sense! However, this conflicts with the Abrahamic God on which Christianity is based; therefore it is blasphemous and likely worthy of death in Yahweh’s eyes. So how does this sit with Christians? Hinduism has been around far longer than Judaism, and Christianity is an extension of Judaism (you can’t have the new testament without the old testament), and Yahweh strictly forbids worshipping other gods, because he is a jealous god, despite somehow being the ‘only god’. Worshipping other gods or false idols is a crime punishable by death in the eyes of Yahweh, therefore it’s your duty to Him to put those blasphemous Hindus to death* (Deuteronomy 13:12-16, and many others), right? Again, all religions can’t be right, but they can all be wrong.

I see religion as a wildfire. Imagine, if you will: one summer night in the middle of a drought, a man is driving down a desolate country road in the middle of the night, a road which only sees an average of two cars between 10 o’ clock at night and six the following morning. He takes the last puff from his cigarette as he zips around a curve, and carelessly tosses it out the window, paying no mind to the dry conditions of the roadside vegetation. As he speeds away, the wind pushes the burning butt off the road, and it rolls into the dry grass. The first blade ignites, spreading to its neighbors. It starts with a few blades, and moves into the brush, gaining momentum as it grows, burning ever hotter as the size increases. Not too far off this isolated road is a forest, and the fire is picking up speed and moving in that direction. Naturally, the forest floor is dry too, consisting of shed branches, bark, leaves – all in various stages of decomposition. It is quickly consumed by the fire, making good tinder to ignite the parched trees. As the trees go up, many animals are losing their homes, and those that don’t escape are consumed by the flames as well. By the time a large section of the forest is engulfed, it is burning brightly enough to be seen from a distance, and a concerned citizen places a call to the fire department. By the time the fire fighters arrive, the blaze is already out of control and moving toward the rural homes. They work quickly to try to stop the fire from reaching these homes, but it has quickly spread in all directions and is now approaching a densely populated area. Many people lose their homes, and the Fire Chief appears on the evening news the following day. Now try to imagine the interviewer asking “So you obviously don’t like wildfires, seeing as how you’re putting forth great effort to stop this one… so why do you care if it spreads? Why not focus on golf, or fishing instead?”

Is this an outrageous comparison? Maybe a little, but it helps to drive my point. Religion, like fire, continues to expand and takes out everything that stands in its way until it is extinguished or runs out of resources to burn. All hail the mighty fire/God! Religion moves in and eventually forces its way upon everyone and everything, and destroys whatever does not conform.

“But how does religion do any harm? I’m a good Christian who goes to church every Sunday, and I try to live a good life and not hurt anyone!” we often hear in protest. This is the problem with moderates. Moderates open the door to the tolerance that allows for extremists. We are told that we should respect other people’s religious beliefs because they keep to themselves and aren’t hurting anyone, but how can one differentiate between a normal quiet person from the likes of Anders Behring Breivik, or the recent Bulgaria bomber before it’s too late? Religious extremists are responsible for the deaths of doctors, the attacks of 9/11 and 7/7, and are behind countless wars – providing evidence that religion causes irreconcilable differences between people and cultures. Religion stands in the way of medical and scientific advancement. With the world population already out of control and struggling to keep up with resources and food, religion wants to ban birth control while simultaneously squawking about scientists ‘playing god’ by genetically modifying plants and animals in efforts to keep up with demand. Stem cells can be used to grow new organs (i.e., save lives), and to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, and heart disease… but religion stands in the way, proclaiming it as an abomination while currently-living people are suffering and dying because an organ donor cannot be found in time.

Religion tends to stamp out anything with which it disagrees. No doubt, religion and evolution are in disagreement. The theory of evolution has given way to understanding how diseases work and allowed medicine to advance. Today, we have mounds of empirical evidence supporting the theory of evolution, but it is vehemently denied by religion because it conflicts with the idea of creationism. Creationism is a hypothesis that was dreamt up thousands of years ago and has zero evidence to support it, nor has it ever aided in advancing science and medicine. Religion seeks to ban the teaching of evolution in schools, and replace it with the myth of creationism as ‘truth’. That’s a definite step in the wrong direction for the continued survival of our species. We will have a new black plague knocking down our doors in no time.

As done in 325 CE by Emperor Constantine and the first council of Nicaea, religion loves to rewrite history to favor itself. The Council inserted divinity into the stories of Jesus, borrowing heavily from other mythologies, and discarded the bits they didn’t care for, all in an effort to keep the people of Rome under control. Congratulations are in order for Constantine, as he has managed to stay in control of over 2 billion people 1675 years after his death. Today, we have Texas trying to rewrite history. There are attempts to remove Thomas Jefferson from the history books and replace him with Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone – simply because they disagree with Jefferson’s secular views. But on the other hand, we have David Barton claiming to have evidence of the secular history of Thomas Jefferson being a lie. This is religion desperately trying to deny the separation of church and state, labeling it as a conspiracy from the ‘godless leftists’.

Not everyone is going to see eye to eye on every topic. For example, I don’t smoke, drink or get high… I’ve outgrown that, but I don’t care if others do these things, provided they are A) of age and B) doing so responsibly without endangering anyone else. They know the risks, and they make their own choices. But if someone is giving cigarettes to a 13-year-old or getting behind the wheel after a night of binge drinking, then I draw the line.  I’m a heterosexual, but I don’t care if someone else’s sexual orientation differs from mine as long as they’re keeping it consensual; but rape is always wrong, regardless if it is homo or heterosexual in nature.

The bottom line is that religion is mythology, just as dogs are canines and cats felines. Believers are trying to hinder advancement and suppress basic human rights in the name of this mythology – and that is wrong. Religion often discriminates against people (i.e., women), and attempts to control its followers with absolute obedience in exchange for empty promises of rewards in an afterlife. This in itself is brilliant marketing, because there is zero chance for buyer’s remorse!

Religion spreads like wildfire, consuming everything in its path, and attempts to spread as far as it can. If you disagree, then please do provide me with a valid argument for missionaries.  Religion causes otherwise ordinary people to do extraordinarily crazy things, and to hurt themselves or others; things that these people wouldn’t do under any other circumstances.

So that’s why an atheist obsesses over religion. We care about religion in the same way every sane person cares about a knife-wielding psychopath roaming freely through the city streets.

*This in no way advocates that one believer should kill another, just pointing out what the bible says.

God Hates Gaps

In the beginning, man created God and religion. And the earth was without science, and void of understanding; and confusion was upon the faces of the people. And the idea of God moved in upon the minds of man.

And man said, let there be faith: and there was faith.

But it was not good.

God Hates GapsEarly man did not understand how the world around him worked. He invented a god to explain every natural phenomenon. There was a god who controlled the wind, a god to pull the sun down and one to hold the moon up; there was a god who made the rain fall, and another to make the wind blow. There was probably even a god who made them flatulent when they displeased him by eating beans; that god hates beans! They didn’t understand bacteria; when someone got sick it was because he had angered one of the gods and was being punished. Eventually, all these gods became too hard to keep track of and became a single God capable of doing everything. A jack of all trades, if you will… and a master of, well, everything! Or so the story goes.

In modern times, we have science. Men and women are making new discoveries everyday and furthering our understanding of the world around us, inside of us, and beyond the confines of our atmosphere. For each discovery that is made, there is another magical power taken away from this God fellow. Along with each new discovery comes a new argument to defend Him.

“Science has discovered blank because God created it to keep us busy. Idle hands are the Devil’s playthings, after all!”

“Science exists because God created science; therefore, science proves God!”

“Science will one day discover God, because he’s up there…it’s in the Bible!”

And of course, there’s everyone’s favorite, “It’s just a theory; it doesn’t prove anything!”

All of these are the sound of the pious digging in their heels and refusing to budge, clinging desperately to that last little shred of hope. Science is methodically filling in the gaps, leaving little room for God. The God that people worship today looks vastly different from the one they followed thousands of years ago. He used to live on Mount Sinai. Once we could easily reach the tops of mountains, he moved into the sky, then above the Earth. Now it is believed evidence of Him can be seen in the Last Scattering Surface as we gaze across the cosmos through powerful telescopes. None of that is in the Bible, of course, it’s only people defending Him and continually moving Him just barely out of reach.

I get that belief in God brings people together in a church, and being a part of this community makes people feel good inside, which releases dopamine, which is then misinterpreted as the feeling of God’s presence. The threat of losing this extended family to something as cold and uncaring as science/evolution triggers a defense mechanism. God is not required to be a part of a community of people who care about one another, but as I stated in my previous post – the church’s survival depends upon the beliefs of its members, so it will do whatever it can to grasp at every little thing before finally exhaling its dying breath.

The explanations and stories that are given in the Bible get so many things wrong and contradict themselves all over the place: biology, astronomy, climate, and many more subjects. I will give three examples here.

Rabbits chew cud? The Bible says they do, in Leviticus 11:6. Rabbits are incapable of regurgitation and lack multiple stomachs which are both prerequisites for chewing cud. Apologists will argue that perhaps this was mistaken to be so because the motion of the rabbit’s jaw looks much like the movement of an animal chewing cud. Or that rabbits practice refection, in which certain matter is passed in droppings and then eaten again. This is eating shit, not chewing cud. RabbitWe don’t mistake dogs practicing shit-eating as a misinterpretation of chewing cud! If the Bible is the infallible word of God, and God created rabbits, then something is amiss. The apologists are grasping at straws and speculating so far off the beaten path that they’re not even practicing the same religion the Bible professes anymore.

Genesis 1:14 states that God affixed the sun and the moon to the firmament (sky) to divide the day from the night. Supposedly, the sun and moon are rotating around us in equal shifts. For now, I will overlook that he created plant life on the third day which would have shriveled up and died without the warmth and solar rays created on the fourth day, and instead focus solely on the error in orbits. Today we understand that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, and neither of these heavenly bodies are affixed to the atmosphere, thanks to contributions of individuals such as Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei. Their theories contradicted the Bible and were vehemently rejected as blasphemous, and caused them much trouble in their lives – yet these men turned out to be on the right path. For my blood pressure’s sake, I would rather not look into how the apologists are reconciling their beliefs with heliocentricity today. In simple terms: the universe created by God, and as described in the Bible, is geocentric, and we know this to be incorrect.

Genesis 6:15 gives Noah the dimensions of the Ark he is to build of gopher wood. His Ark is 300 cubits long, 60 wide and 30 high. In US customary units, that works out to 450′ x 75′ x 45′. The Ark was three stories, which gives Noah a grand total of 101,250 square feet to work with. That’s 33,750 square feet per floor. 2.32 buoyant acres sounds like a good amount of space to work with, that’s a little over one and a half times the size of Bill Gates’ massive house in Medina, WA. To help put the size of the Ark into perspective, I’ll look to the largest aircraft carrier in the US Navy – the USS Enterprise (CVN 65). It is 1,123 feet long, 257′ wide and 250′ high, well over double the size of Noah’s Ark. Try imagining the world’s largest zoo fitting aboard this vessel. The San Diego Zoo spans across 435,600 square feet, and only holds about 4,000 animals. Genesis 7:2-3 instructs him to take 7 of all clean animals, and 2 of each unclean. So how many animals was he supposed to pack in there? Today, we estimate there are 8.7 million species of life on earth, give or take 1.3 million. Approximately 2.2 of those live in the ocean, so we don’t have to count them; they are excused from suffering the wrath when the humans displease their God. If we lowball the remaining 6.5 on the -1.3 margin, we’re left with 5.2 million species. That means that at least 51 species would have had to have shared each square foot on the Ark. Even if they were all infants stacked floor to ceiling this still wouldn’t have worked out. And let’s not forget the animals which have gone extinct over all this time. In the last 100 years alone we’ve lost numerous varieties,Noah's Ark image, from the Bible Stories Library, Free Christian Clipart. including the Arabian Ostrich, Caspian Tiger and Pyrenean Ibex. And let’s not forget that not all of the space could have been used for animals, as food would have to be packed for this 40 day journey. And then what of the waste? Did Noah and his sons work constantly to shovel it all overboard? Too many questions, and no valid answers.

These are only 3 examples of errors in the “inerrant” word of God. Divine words, or explanations and stories as told by the simple men of those days? Seems like the creator of everything should have been able to get everything right effortlessly. When it is so easy to see these glaring man-made errors, why do people still believe this stuff? I like to compare this to a shady car salesman – everyone knows we can put blind faith in anything they tell us, right? Suppose a teenage boy walks into a dealership with all the money from his summer job in his pocket and a head full of dreams about the personal freedoms a car will afford him. He doesn’t know the first thing about how cars work, but he knows it will change his life to own one. A salesman walks up and is eager to pair this kid up with his dream hot rod, or at least as close to his dream as his meager pocketful of cash can bring him. The kid falls in love with the first car the guy shows him, and curious, he asks how it works.

“Cars run on divine power, kid! You give the car-god a sacrifice of clean fuel, and if it pleases him, he will grant the car forward motion!”

“Wow, that’s awesome!” the kid says, gazing dreamily through the windshield, fantasizing about speeding down a desolate country road at midnight. “So how does the radio work?”

“There’s a magic stone in there, blessed by the gods of frequency and amplitude modulation. There are several such stones scattered throughout the land, and people build shrines around these stones, and then anything they say in those places can be heard through your radio!”

Young and naive, the kid believes it. Mostly because he doesn’t actually care, he just wants to drive this car home. After filling out the over-abundance of paperwork, he asks about maintenance. “Don’t worry about it, kid! Just remember to put only clean fuel in her, and she’ll keep on purring like a kitten! But if you use unclean fuel, like diesel, or if she gets dirty and you don’t clean her right away, well… the car god’s gonna be angry, and he’ll make her stop running!”

“But then what?” he asks, concerned about losing his car.

“Heaven forbid it should ever happen, but if it does, just bring her right back in here, and for a small sacrifice of cash money, we’ll have a holy man give her a blessing and she’ll be good as new!”

So a few years go by, and his car begins to sputter out. He notices a knocking sound for a couple of weeks and decides to see if something got in there and wants out, like a curious badger. Opening the hood, he studies the engine carefully. He goes to the library and checks out a book on mechanics. He now understands the combustion engine and realizes all the parts of the engine work together to turn the wheels as he presses his foot on the accelerator. He’s amused that he actually believed that the car moved on magic alone. But the radio, now that’s another story… That’s pure magic right there! Right? It has to be!

It would be foolish to believe that the radio is magic after realizing the engine was not. This car salesman would quickly lose all credibility with a story like that, and his other claims would quickly be dismissed as nonsense shortly thereafter. I realize this story is far-fetched and leaning heavily toward the outright ridiculous, but that’s the point. So why do some people continue to believe some parts of the bible when we can plainly see other parts of this ‘inerrant text’ are wrong?

This previous weekend, my wife and I went to see Edward Falzon (Author of “Being Gay is Disgusting“) speak, and he suggested that for an adult to lose their faith after a lifetime of belief is similar to an adult being told that his parents adopted him when he was a baby. One would be faced with the realization that he had been lied to his entire life. Not that the lies were malevolent or intended to hurt him, but I imagine for most this would be the beginning of the journey down the path of the Kübler-Ross model… Denial, and then anger. However, many people would not be allowed to reach acceptance due to their support system (i.e. church) standing strong in the third stage, bargaining. Their beliefs are reinforced and they are told that their faith is being tested, and they must remain strong and then everything will be alright.

The gaps are quickly closing in on God, and clutching on to beliefs will only result in believers fighting to keep the gaps open. Human beings are animals, whether one chooses to accept this or reject it as an undesirable opinion, and when an animal feels threatened and backed into a corner, it will lash out in an effort of self preservation. With this in mind, I see it as pointless to jab and ridicule the believer. Instead, be kind and attempt to show them the errors in their beliefs. When a small child assembles a puzzle with the majority of the pieces in the wrong place with unfilled gaps everywhere, we don’t applaud them and say “Well done!” and we wouldn’t ridicule them and call them names over their mistake. We would show them the correct way to put the pieces together. We wouldn’t want to leave gaps in the middle of the puzzle, preventing all viewers from seeing the complete picture. Offer a helping hand, and together we can close the gaps in our lives the same way; we can put Elohim, El Shaddai, Yahweh, Jehovah, Jesus, Allah (whatever name He’s going by at the moment) to rest in the halls of mythology where he belongs, and move humanity forward.

I Wanted To Believe

July 8, 2012 4 comments

I Want To Believe

In  an isolated corner of a cramped basement office in Washington D.C., there hangs a poster with an image of a UFO and the slogan, “I Want To Believe”.  Or at least there is in the hit 1990s television series, The X-Files.  And in this secluded office is a man, an FBI agent, whom the rest of the bureau thinks is a lunatic: Fox ‘Spooky’ Mulder.  He believes bizarre things that others dismiss as complete nonsense, and this causes him to be barely tolerated by his peers and stuffed into this storage-room-turned-makeshift-office. It seems that in the real world, the opposite is true: the people who believe outlandish things are roaming free while those of us who are skeptical of their claims are kept out of sight like a dirty little secret.

We should all be investigators of the unknown and examine all available evidence that can support or counter the claims.  The truth is out there.  We should look at the evidence that is there, and not fabricate new evidence to back up a claim that we want to be true. Every scientific theory begins with a valid hypothesis, a falsifiable supposition based on limited evidence of an observation, and we begin the investigation from there. To test a hypothesis, experiments are conducted in an attempt to disprove it. If it cannot be proven incorrect, then it becomes a theory.  A theory has evidence to support its claims, and we can safely and rationally believe it to be true. If ever the evidence is disproven, then it is time for a new hypothesis in order to gain further understanding; we must be ever-adapting and always remain skeptical.

As an example, let’s look at an outrageous claim, such as an obviously fictitious one as proclaimed in the 1986 children’s movie, An American Tail, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.” How can this be falsified?  If A) we are in America, and B) we see cats, then the first half of this claim is already proven false with simple observation.  What about the streets?  Can we tell if they are made with cheese by looking at them?  Maybe not, if the pavement is a blend of rocks and cheese. After all, the jubilant song only said the streets were paved with, not made entirely of, cheese. And it never claimed the cheese would be edible after being turned into asphalt.  To test this, we could take a sample of the pavement and examine it.  We know that cheese is a dairy product, so we could examine the sample for any signs of dairy. In a laboratory, a chemical analysis of the composition would reveal bitumen, hydrocarbons, sand and rocks… but no cheese, no dairy proteins and no fat.  Looking at the evidence, we can no longer believe the streets to be made of cheese, and if we do, we are not sane and rational people.  Even nuttier if we were to start up a road paving company and invest in a herd of cows for raw materials.

If one is emotionally attached to a hypothesis, can one honestly try to prove it wrong?  Suppose a man had been telling people for years that the streets were made of cheese, and that he often saw wild field mice nibbling away at the roads in the middle of the night, causing potholes.  Suppose this was taken a step further, and a company was commissioned to line the sides of the roads with mouse traps, and crews were dispatched daily to inspect the traps and remove the carcasses of the unfortunate rodents.  By chance alone, especially on rural highways surrounded by fields, a few mice are bound to be ensnared. It would surely be believed that they were caught trying to get onto the road and steal the cheese for their own selfish and evil purposes with an absolute disregard for the damage they are causing, rather than just trying to get to the other side! Now we have the man who started this claim, a company who generates income based on the claim, and families of workers who live off of the income provided by this company which is lining the streets with mousetraps (which have been ‘proven’ effective) all believing this.  Would it really be in the best interests of any of these people to disprove this hypothesis?  I would think they would be more likely to use the mice that were caught as ‘evidence’ supporting the claim. Because this claim benefits their and their families’ welfare, they want to believe it.  When asked about the new potholes that are forming in the roads, the answer would likely be that the mice are clever, and have devised ways of avoiding the traps.  “It’s not a foolproof system, it’s not 100%, but it’s definitely helping… just look at all the mice we’ve caught!”, they would say, “For every wily mouse who has found a way around the traps, there are ten ex-mice who won’t be ruining our roads anymore! The problem could be much worse!”

This is a belief that is benefitting people and their families.  The company who is generating revenue which is being used to pay the workers who are placing and inspecting the traps, and the families of all the employees who are living comfortably are all benefitting from this.  Does this mean it’s a good idea to allow the people to continue believing this?  Wouldn’t it be a better idea to determine the real reason the potholes are created and do something about that?  Perhaps addressing the real issue would create more jobs, better jobs even. Surely such a suggestion would be met with ridicule and attacked by Roadside Mousetrap, Inc. It would be in the company’s best interest to enforce the beliefs of their employees and continue generating income, rather than letting a new hypothesis give way to a new company that the workers can move to and benefit from. It’s a basic survival instinct.

Merely wanting something to be true does not make it so. In the outrageous example above, the people want it to be true so they can continue their way of life. Their beliefs are further reinforced by the church, er, i mean, corporation whose survival depends upon the people’s faith in their claims.

I’m sure women who encounter a lump in their breast would rather want to believe that it is just a benign cyst – that is by far a much more pleasant scenario than the alternative.  Where would we be today if the general consensus was that if one finds a lump in her breast it is probably a cyst that will go away on its own?  Sure, there is a chance that it truly could be a cyst.  Would it be beneficial to pray to an unseen deity to ensure that it’s a cyst and nothing more?  If the afflicted woman prayed for this, and it turned out to be a cyst, she would likely continue praying for further miracles without taking into account that it was probably a cyst to begin with.  Suppose it’s not a cyst.  Suppose it’s a tumor, and this woman is trying to treat her breast cancer with prayer, and doesn’t take action until the only option is mastectomy.  If she believed that prayer really worked, she would probably believe that her god was being mysterious again, and perhaps this is her punishment for that one wild night at Mardi Gras where she amassed a copious collection of beads.  That’ll teach her for acts of public indecency, now won’t it? In this case, wanting the belief to be true has a very negative effect.

These imagined scenarios are just a couple of examples of incorrect belief causing harm and impeding the true progress of humanity. Sure, these situations are made up, but we see examples of this behavior every day; people wanting something to be true and therefore mistakenly believing it to be true, contrary to evidence.

Shortly before fully accepting my atheism, I found myself wanting to believe in a higher power.  I observed that many believers always appeared to be happy, even when their lives are rough.  They always see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.  Believing that God is there, pulling for them, they always manage to make it through the tough times.  As it turns out, we all make it through our hardships with varying degrees of success.  Either you survive it, or you don’t.  Either you make it over the hurdle, or you wind up dead or in prison.  Everything is constantly changing, including our life situations.  The only difference being that the believers are ignoring the mental distress caused by the situation and choosing to believe that their god is working things out for them, just like a good magician making you watch his left hand while the right is performing the trick.  The benefit is escaping the situation without any additional emotional baggage.  The downside being that without the emotional distress to serve as a reminder we are likely to take the same course of action to lead us into this same situation again.

It turns out that my brief periods of lack of commitment to disbelief caused more distress than choosing one side of the fence or the other.  Not knowing what one wants is more difficult than having a definite goal and working toward it.  Indecision is always rough. Since coming to terms with my atheism, I have experienced a greater clarity of thought.  Being able to say, “I don’t know how things will turn out, but I know I will adapt and pull through it,” is an honest answer, and easier on the emotions than being let down by a god who simply isn’t there.

My goal now is knowledge, I want to understand everything that I can, and I am enjoying the journey.  Reality is far more fascinating than magical stories. Cosmology, Microbiology, Psychology; these are all entire worlds of strange and fascinating things waiting to be discovered, and all are far more fascinating than simple superstitions acting as explanations for the world, invented by our primitive ancestors before they had the tools for a better understanding of their environment.  Sure, it’s possible to cover your eyes and ears and continue wanting to believe in God and heaven because it’s a nice story that makes you feel good inside, but wanting it to be true because it makes you happy doesn’t make it so – ignorance is bliss, but only for as long as you are able to remain ignorant.

Shunning the Misunderstood

We are all born with an innate sense of fear as a survival mechanism. It is natural to feel fear when confronted with something we do not understand. When we were simpler creatures, we could live a bit longer by assuming something was dangerous and staying away, rather than assuming it was safe only to find it considered us tasty. Take for example a primitive ancestor out for a leisurely stroll in a nearby field one sunny afternoon, perhaps after a hearty lunch or a much needed nap. While walking through a patch of tall weeds he trips over an unexpected object and hears rustling in the grass. He doesn’t see what he stumbled over, but he knows large venomous snakes are common in the area. He chooses to run. He has only happened upon a dead branch in the weeds, but if he had just assumed this and it had been an actual snake, he would have been in trouble for sticking around. Fear is a natural reaction for any intelligent life-form with self-preservation in mind.

As we have evolved, we still carry this gut reaction. Rather than being a useful tool for our survival, it now acts as a hindrance to our lives. Living within any culture bedeviled with archaic beliefs and superstitions, we are often told that certain thoughts, emotions or objects are bad or evil by their very essence. We are given simple explanations as to why these things are believed to be iniquitous, and if it is an idea generally accepted by our peers we will often take it at face value. It is simpler to adopt a preconceived notion than to explore and discover new experiences for ourselves; this is often the path of least resistance when trying to fit in amongst peers. Other times we may draw our own conclusions that something is wicked simply because we don’t like it, or we don’t understand it fully – such as waking to an ominous sound in the middle of the night, or shadows moving suddenly as we walk home on a dreary winter evening. Whatever the case may be, we tend to irrationally label these as bad things and assign a degree of fear to them. Fear causes us to shun, rather than seek to understand.

As with many things that I ponder these days, I am taken back to an event from my childhood. One fall afternoon a few days before Halloween, I walked through the usual maze of back yards to my friend’s house. The neighbors never complained, and it cut a ten minute walk down to two. His parents always treated me as if I were one of their own, and today was no exception. Upon entering the house, his mother told me she was about to make some hot cocoa and asked if I would like some. “Yes, please,” – that sounded delightful. I went to my friend’s room where I found him practicing a game on his Atari 2600, one at which we were planning on mercilessly competing against one another in a short while. We decided to go hang out in the kitchen and eagerly await the tasty treat we were anticipating. I watched as his parents gathered the ingredients; a gallon of milk, a can of chocolate powder, a large mixing bowl and a wooden spoon. They poured the milk into the bowl and mixed in the chocolate, and then placed the bowl into the microwave oven.

Back in 1986, my family did not own a microwave oven. We had just barely acquired our first VCR. I had heard some grown-ups talking about microwave ovens before, quite sure that using radiation to cook food would be horrible for our health – why just look at the disaster caused by all that radiation in Chernobyl a few months back! I didn’t have any personal experience with microwaves, but if adults whom I trusted said they were bad, then certainly they must be bad. I was nervous about radioactive anything, since it was all over the news recently. I was paranoid about falling ill with any disease, and at the top of this list were AIDS and cancer. I knew in my heart of hearts that microwave radiation would maliciously and intentionally give me cancer. “I just remembered, I have to help my mom with some things around the house today. I’ve gotta go!” I said, as I backed my way towards the door, thanking them for the offer of hot cocoa. “Maybe another time!”

I was afraid of what that nuclear beverage would do to my insides, and didn’t have the heart to tell my friend or his family that it was going to kill them all. Rather than finding a way to express my fear and politely decline the offer only after seeing how it was prepared, I fled. Natural survival instincts had kicked in, and self-preservation was at stake! I spent the rest of the evening at home, bored, with nothing to do and no chores to help my mom with. All because I didn’t understand how a microwave oven worked, and had ranked it right alongside Hitler at the top of a list entitled ‘Things that are evil’.

The moral of the story is that we should always seek out the facts and put forth an effort to understand something before we blindly classify it as villainous and refuse any further mention or inquiry. We should ask ourselves how we know that this object or idea is bad, who has done the research, what was the outcome of this research, and just how awful is it? Is it little-scratch-bad, or bone-through-skin-bad? Is there any documented proof of this, have we seen it for ourselves, or are we taking it all on hearsay?

I encourage everyone to break out of their comfort zones: find a subject that you have condemned as abominable and fully reevaluate it. Why do you believe it to be bad? If it’s a lack of understanding, seek out information on the subject and educate yourself. Maybe it doesn’t suit your personal tastes, but is it actually harmful to yourself or to others? Is it something that your parents or peers have long believed to be bad because they were told this was the gospel truth? I am finding that my newfound inquisitive approach is allowing me to see things in new light. I frequently ask myself, “Is this just not my style, or is it truly bad for me or anyone else?”

In some cases, things are truly bad: heroin, crystal meth, drunk driving. These are harmful to people and contribute to many issues; poor health, hospitalization and termination of life. In some cases, things are alright: a homosexual relationship, pre-marital sex, legalizing marijuana. If the sex is consensual and safe, then whom is it hurting? If we legalize pot, I’m sure the same people smoking it now will continue, and those who don’t wont start; legality is hardly the issue. It doesn’t seem to have any lasting harmful effects, other than laziness and the munchies, and a stoned person is far less likely to be out in the world killing people or otherwise causing harm. Legalize it and regulate it, just like alcohol. Let people love whomever they choose, and let them express it however they want as long as they’re being safe and responsible, and all parties involved have given consent.

As I put forth effort to make sense of and understand things, I find that giving it rational thought leads me to see many things as acceptable, even if I don’t agree with them on a personal level. We don’t need to instinctually shun what we don’t understand when we are not in immediate danger anymore. We’ve evolved beyond the need; now we just need to try to ease out of the reaction.

God, No!

Thinking back to my first post on this blog (Coming Out) a little over a month ago, I had mentioned that my tipping point down this path of atheism started with seeing Penn Jillette on a talk show promoting his new book, “God, No!” I started my journey with other books on the subject of atheism rather than this one specifically, but I felt it important to finally read the book on which I had made my wager with ‘God’. I am very glad that I did – it is very entertaining, and he makes many excellent points. I don’t connect with Penn on every level; we are obviously two very different people leading different lifestyles (and that’s OK), but I do agree with him on so many points when it comes to religion.

I was fascinated to read about the “Atheist Baptism” with the ex-Hasidic Jew he dubs Atheist Boy, in which AB approaches him after a show and explains that after hearing Penn on the radio, he had been inspired to come out as an atheist. Penn & Teller took him for his first taste of treif (non-kosher food); he experienced the joys of shrimp, clams, oysters, pork, and – most importantly – a bacon cheeseburger. I connected with this story because it was similar to how mine began: it wasn’t Penn who put the doubt in my mind, but it was Penn who indirectly encouraged me to accept that I was an atheist. In writing this book and appearing on a show that I happened to catch on a small screen in the gym (perfect example of right place/right time), he got me thinking about what I do (or in this case, don’t) believe.

In his book, Penn describes his awakening into atheism as a high school student, when he negotiated a deal with his parents whereby he could skip church and sleep in on Sundays, provided he went to youth group on Sunday evenings. Then he decided to read the Bible. He describes reading the bible as the “fast track to atheism”… not reading a passage here or there, but starting with “In the beginning” and throwing it down in disgust at “the grace of the lord Jesus be with all. Amen.” He shares an amusing anecdote about being excused from the church entirely after getting into debates with the pastor; eventually his pastor informed Penn’s parents that he was not only not getting anything out of youth group, but he was converting the other kids to atheism as well. Huzzah, I say!

I found several fantastic quotes in this book, including one from an anonymous author he found on the web: “Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.” This is undoubtedly where the chapter got its name – Passing Down the Joy of Not Collecting Stamps. A quote in this chapter which really stood out to me was,

Reality exists outside of humans. Religion does not.

This is a simple way of stating what I have felt for a very long time. All living creatures, big or small, experience reality in the world that we all live in. Whether humans believe animals have a ‘soul’ or not doesn’t change the simple fact that we share this planet with them. They have just as much of a right to be here as we do. They eat, sleep and breathe the same as we, and most pass on their genetics in the exact same way. Our paths have only diverged as a matter of evolution. We should treat them, and our planet, with respect. Religion is man-made; reality is not.

This is not the point Penn was going for, but it’s not too far off. He was alluding to basic truths such as evolution which people choose to ignore despite the evidence, because it leaves precious little room for their beliefs. My take is just another branch of the same tree, just as animals are another branch in the tree of life.

“I just want to believe in God”
“I just want to believe I’m Bob Dylan, but it will be healthier for both of us if we just live in the world the way it is.”

So true! Believing in the things we wish were true is a waste of time, and can be detrimental to our health and well-being. We could live together peacefully if we put that same energy into believing in each other. We can work to enrich our lives (and the lives of our children) with science and technology; we can prevent disease, preserve our environment, and find new ways to produce food in an already overpopulated world.

“The enemy is faith. Love and respect all people; destroy all faith.”

I completely agree, as I have said in previous posts. We shouldn’t hate people because of what they believe; we should try to help them come around to a more sensible and rational point of view. If we are going to allow anyone to believe things without evidence, then we must respect everyone’s beliefs, regardless how crazy… no cherry-picking which ones are OK! Penn sums it up best with, “If you believe that your warm, snuggly feeling about the universe means a god… Then Charlie Manson can tell you that those people were killed because the Beatles told Charlie about an impending race war.”

Overall, I am very glad that I finally read this book. I respect Penn as an entertainer; I have always been a fan of Penn & Teller. I respect him for his opinions, even though we lead very different lives. He is much more liberal than I, and has far fewer inhibitions, but I am not going to judge him for his lifestyle; we are each living our lives the way we want, and each have the right to do so. This is different from respecting a religious belief – Penn isn’t infringing on anyone else’s right to live, he isn’t violating any human rights, and he isn’t impeding any scientific research that can be crucial to the survival of our species. I believe he ended this book in the most perfect way imaginable, so I am going to outright steal the last sentence from his book for this post.

Fuck faith.


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