Thursday, June 30, 2011

"F-ing Magnets, How Do They Work?"

Is anyone except me slightly irked when people legitimately make things up and, when ask for an explanation, treats their made up idea as  if it were some sort of profound mystery? This complaint is related to, but not the same as yesterday's post about philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Humans have a natural curiosity that drives them to solve mysteries, this much is clear. What I consistently fail to grasp, however, is our insistence upon creating "mysteries" and "miracles" where there needn't be any at all.

Let me give you a simple example. The phrase "God works in mysterious ways" is one of the most irksome cop-outs I have ever encountered. When entering into discussions about God giving humans free will for example, we often hear questions asked about why God supposedly intervenes a certain times in the lives of humans or why God allows certain "natural evils". This line of questioning generally comes back with the "mysterious ways" reply. I rarely know how to respond to this nonsense, not because it's a good reply, but because it's a supremely bad one. In such a situation, the theist is making an assertion that things happen for a reason, that is, God's plan. When asked about the rationale behind said plan, however, the best the theist can do is give an elegant version of "I don't know". How the heck does this explain anything? Why not simply admit that you don't know in the first place? What's the use of tacking on random claims of divinity that are no more than pious assumptions? And of course, when natural disasters are explained in purely materialistic terms, the miracle squad will inevitably cluck endlessly.

There were some who did not understand why certain rational minds made ICP's song "Miracles" into such a big deal. It's just a song, right? Wrong. Though the Insane Clown Posse's messy lyrics demonstrate a juvenile view of the world combined with willful ignorance, they do, in fact, display an attitude that is depressingly common among believers in the supernatural today. The difference between the ICP and theologians is that theologians are far more eloquent and thus, sound much more convincing.

That may seem like a very harsh claim to make, after all, there are a good many very intelligent theologians out there. However, I don't think the comparison is undeserved. I was recently reading an informational website run by a certain religious group who shall, for the time being, remain nameless. The subject was the inspired nature of the gospels. After a very long (and admittedly poetic) description of the depth and mystery of God's hand in scripture, there was a rather short and snippy paragraph about how scholars who use "scientific" methods to investigate scripture and thus, question the traditional interpretations, are only seeking to mislead the public. The origin of scripture could only be divine.

The sad fact is that the sentiment expressed in that essay was IDENTICAL to that of the song "Miracles". The ICP raps defiantly, "f*cking magnets, how do they work?/ And I don't wanna talk to a scientist/ ya'll motherf*ckers lying/ and gettin' me pissed!" What is the cause of this rampant anti-intellectualism? At least most people that I know of think the Insane Clown Posse is nuts. But people actually TRUST priests, pastors, rabbis and imams. Sometimes I wonder if people actually listen to what their religious leaders say or if they just see and hear pretty words strung together such so that they can't possibly be wrong.

Sadly, no matter how beautiful an idea is, that idea could still be wrong.

There is a simple answer to why parts of the Bible contradict each other and/or make no sense. As far as we can tell, it is simply a book written by scores of people over thousands of years. Please note, PEOPLE. There is no secret divine mystery to any of it and there needn't be one. Sure, there are things we don't know about the origins of the Bible, Qur'an and Torah, but that's exactly why we looks to historians and archaeologists. These people dedicate their lives to discovering these truths. Many of them are believers with no intention of "lying" or "misleading" people. No matter how much of it you do, pulling ideas and pure logic out of the air will never lead you to truth. Not without evidence, that is. Yet this is all apologetics is and ever will be. So let's stop making excuses.

I always loved the House quote about how, if the wonder of something disappears once that something is explained, there never was any wonder to begin with. It's so true. We need to stop adding Gods and spirits where they don't belong. We need to stop clinging to ancient ideas simply because they're beautiful or profound-sounding or... well, ancient. The more I read about ancient wisdom, the less wise it sounds to me. What use are imagined mysteries when there are so many real ones?

And remember, no matter how many assumptions we add to an argument, we know what will have the last laugh:

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Mystical, Philosophical Babble

One of the more interesting courses I took last year was a philosophy of religion course. One of the big facts I learned indirectly about philosophy was that philosophy is about as useless as it is fascinating. Don't misunderstand, I like philosophy. It's a good way to get ideas flowing, to learn how to conduct logical discussions, to learn how to think in different ways. However, I can't help but notice that when it comes to accurately describing, explaining or conveying reality, pure philosophy almost inevitably fails. Certainly, many of the ideas we hold true today began as mere philosophical treatises (political ideology and the like). However, there are also a good many philosophical ideas that we hold to be false. How do we choose which are true and which are false? It all comes back to whether or not that idea or concept is demonstrably true. I'll give you an example. How many times have we heard the phrase "communism looks good on paper, but it doesn't work in real life"? Now we could debate all day as to whether or not this is actually true, but the fact still stands that many citizens of the modern world believe this statement to be somewhat true. After all, there are many still alive today who were able to witness just how corrupt Lenin's conceptualization of communism became. Yes, yes, I understand that there are different types of communism, etc. My point is simply that soviet style per Lenin was once a viable idea, philosophically for large numbers of people. Reality told a different story. Lenin turned out to be dead wrong in many ways, despite being philosophically sound.

Back to philosophy of religion.

There are those within many (if not most) religious and spiritual traditions who assert that there are parts of "truth" that science cannot touch. Some would say that there are elements both inside and outside the universe that defy empirical and rational explanations. Therefore, we must turn to faith and philosophy in order to understand them. Whenever I hear someone make this assertion, I find it hard not to exclaim how ridiculous the assertion is. Without any sort of evidential support for its premises, a philosophical argument is indistinguishable from an opinion pulled out of thin air. I like to use the following example that I heard on non-prohpets once to illustrate this point:
I start by asserting that 2+2=5. This means that 4=5. By subtracting 3 from both sides, we find that 1=2. The pope and I are 2 people. Therefore, the pope and I are 1 person. Therefore, I am the pope.
Obviously, this is ludicrous. However, my logic was perfectly sound. My fatal error was in starting with a very bad, unverifiable premise. This is problem with pure reason and philosophy. There is no guarantee that such arguments will lead us to anything that's real. They may give us pause or make us think for a second, but they are useless for all practical purposes.

Unfortunately, every argument for the existence of any supernatural quality or entity is almost directly comparable to the 2+2=5 argument. This is because all of them start with a premise that no person or group of people can possibly justify: the premise that there MUST necessarily be something other worldly, supernatural or spiritual about the universe. Something beyond the material that explains or controls forces that humans simply cannot. Heartbreaking as it may sound to the already convinced, there is absolutely no practical reason to believe that this premise is true.

Sure, we may WANT there to be something other. We may HOPE that there is something other. And yet, being as we are, the universe owes us absolutely nothing. Our wants and hopes have no effect on physical reality. Some might point out that I'm attempting to use logic and evidence to approach something that is not logical. Fine. The problem with this point is that, if you wish to argue for the existence of anything in particular within this supernatural realm, you shoot yourself in the foot. Once you assert that something is beyond logic or evidence, you have placed it in the realm of the unknowable and have no business asserting anything specific about it. Anything specific you do choose to assert about it is, again, indistinguishable from ideas pulled out of thin air.

What I truly fail to understand time and time again is why people become so disheartened by the idea that there may very well be nothing beyond the material realm. Why do we feel the need to tack on mysticism to a universe that is wondrously intricate without it. It seems to me like tacking random lace patterns onto this dress:

Sure the dress is simple, but it's lovely the way it is. There's no reason to believe that there needs to be any lace on it at all. Sure, it's not extravagant, but why does it need to be in order for us to appreciate it? The way in which my dress analogy fails is in that the universe IS extravagant, even speaking in purely materialistic terms. There is even less need to add mysticism to the universe than there is to add accessories to this dress. There are plenty of mysteries and complexities in the universe as is. We don't need to pull new ones out of our butts that only distract us from the real "spiritual" nature of the universe.  Philosophical conceptions of reality are often fun and interesting, but, in the end, they might as well be no more than mystical babble. I say we stop babbling and start discovering. Or, at least, don't let our babble get in the way of our discovery. Let's stop pretending that there's something "deep" about concepts such as the "unmoved mover" or the "eternal watchmaker" when the real depth in the universe is deeper than any God or spirit we mortals could ever imagine. 

Obsessed with Circumcision

For some reason, I have heard so much about circumcision in the last few weeks that it's starting to put the Old Testament to shame. That's saying something. Ok, so maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I feel like a fair amount of people are giving a lot of attention to this issue, especially since the San Fransisco circumcision ban was proposed. I guess I should throw in my two cents on the issue.

My feelings on circumcision are largely mixed. First of all, I think it's dishonest to directly compare it to female genital cutting. Male circumcision consists of the removal of the foreskin of the penis, which is the equivalent of the clitoral hood on the female. Female circumcision involves, at the very least, the removal of the clitoris, meaning that the two would only be comparable in that sense if male circumcision involved the removal of the entire head of the penis. In addition, the circumstances, stated aims, methods etc. of the two procedures are very different. The way I see it, removing the skin around the head of the penis of a newborn for supposed health reasons or because the parents don't know any better is different than enduring a risky procedure to cut of a large portion of the female genitalia under generally unsafe circumstances in order to keep the girl sexually pure. If we have to resort to emotional appeals by comparing the two in those ways, we probably shouldn't be having this discussion.

That being said, I am not nessisarily in support of circumcision either. One fact that both male and female circumcision have in common is that the only real reason to have the procedures done in the first world is tradition. Appeals to tradition, as always, are fallacious arguments. Just because something is traditional doesn't make it nessasary or morally right. There have been assertions that there are health benefits to circumcisions and there have been studies (some of which were mentioned in a recent video by c0nc0rdance on YouTube) that, in AIDS ridden countries, male circumcision significantly reduced the rate of contraction. For a while, I was pretty convinced that, while I could never call myself a proponent of the practice, circumcision might not be SO bad if the health benefits are that positive. However, a recent blog entry by PZ Meyers has led me to rethink this notion. According to Meyers, the study was incomplete and inaccurate. Besides, in first world countries such as America, AIDS and STDs are less prevalent and relatively preventable with safer sex methods, such as condom use or responsible moderation of sexual activity. If this is so, then only one reason remains for circumsizing boys: tradition. This leaves me, again, with mixed feelings because tradition is never a good justification for something as serious as surgeries on the genatalia of infants.

In the end, I find it difficult to take a strong stand on the issue either way. If the procedure is virtually useless, I cannot support it. However, I don't think that I could support a ban on the practice either. There are a couple reasons for this. Firstly, circumcision is less risky, health wise, when done on infants than on older men and boys. The healing process is easier, and the child won't remember it, saving him from future pain and/or insecurities. These points would be rather irrelevant if circumcision weren't so prominent in the United States. The simple reality is that most people in the US choose to have their male children circumcised and I hypothesize that, because of this, many male children would make that choice when they became old enough to decide (even if only due to social pressure). That being as it is, people at this point in time should have access to the simpler infant procedure. I feel that this is one of those situations that needs to be worked out through education and further study rather than legal action.

This is an issue that merits further discussion, but I think the shouts of "human rights violation" and "anti-semitism" are not necessary at this point.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


...I am coming out of my week-long funk/illness. This is a good thing because I really hate being sick and in depressive funks. It always makes me more hostile than I'm comfortable with.

Last night, I finally got a copy of "Climbing Mount Improbable" by Richard Dawkins. I'm very excited to start it. I know that there are plenty of people who get on the cases of atheists for "worshipping" Dawkins. This claim is obviously ridiculous-- I don't worship Dawkins any more than Christians worship C.S. Lewis. Still, I have never read books on biology that made my jaw drop the way Dawkins' do. "Unweaving the Rainbow" was especially moving. The universe is such an incredible, terrible, beautiful, overpowering place. Whenever I read about biology, I always feel so humbled and so happy to be a part of it all.

I'm also very happy to have started working full-time last week. Currently, I'm a substitute secretary at Kalamazoo Public Schools. It wasn't exactly the job I was expecting, but it certainly is better than nothing. It's one of those jobs where I feel so powerful and so powerless at the same time. The ladies I work with and I are in charge of so much to make sure that the school system runs smoothly. Yet we hear so many stories, especially from kids who have to enroll in summer school, that are heartbreaking and that we can do nothing about. It really makes me wish a could adopt all of those troubled kids....

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Convince Me

Every once in a while (more than I'd like to, unfortunately) I hear theists of all stripes claiming that evidence for God is out there. Atheists, apparently, are just too blind/ignorant/closed-minded/stubborn/possessed by the devil to notice it. Some even claim that we DO see the evidence, we just pretend we don't so we can sin.

Obviously, these claims are excuses made in order to duck the immense burden of proof belonging to those who claim belief in the supernatural. However, I'll be friendly for once and I will describe in detail the type of evidence I would need in order to consider a belief in a God. 


If every person claiming to have been "divinely inspired" come back with the same messages, revelations and assertions, I might be inclined to think that there might be some truth to their claims. However, the types of divine revelations we see and hear about today are suspiciously close to what we would expect if people were just making stuff up or mistaken. Christians, Muslims AND Jews all claim that their texts are the inspired words of divine beings. Yet all of these "inspired words" say different things. Not only that, but every denomination of Christianity claims (oddly enough, for the same reasons)  to be interpreting the Bible correctly while the others are distorted in their thinking. Why does this not seem fishy to most people? It's even gotten to the point where some of these churches actually distort history to make themselves seem like the "original" interpretations of Christianity. Both the Eastern Orthodox Christians and Fundamentalist Christians such as Jack Chick claim that their systems of belief were founded by Jesus Himself. In actuality, Jesus never founded a church. His original followers were all Jews. Christianity developed as a result of both evolution of certain beliefs and the attempts of more powerful believers to wipe out the ideas of the weaker ones. For all of this "divine inspiration", no one can seem to agree what these supposedly divine beings are saying. Either these beings suck at communicating or people are (consciously of unconsciously) making stuff up. 
Now if aliens from the andromeda galaxy came to earth and they were undeniably Christian and they instantly recognized we humans as God's chosen species, I would give the religion another thought. Same goes for any other faith. However, all of this as yet to happen and I remain unconvinced.

A Demonstrable Miracle/Act of God

Miracles are yet another proof people claim to have that their deity exists. Yet somehow, every single religion boasts miracles, even though not all of these religions can be correct. Now all we have to do to find that many miracles are either intentional or accidental hoaxes is go to skeptics dictionary and look them up. In order for me to accept an event as miraculous, it would have to be completely unprecedented. The remission of diseases  such as cancer can't count because spontaneous remissions are within the expected behavior of the conditions! The classic example of healing amputees comes to mind here. Now keep in mind that a single regenerated limb using prayer or Holy Water isn't enough. The event would have to be able to be tested and repeated under controlled conditions and the conclusions would have to be peer reviewed. This is not any sort of special requirement. This is exactly the process that every hypothesis must go through before we can consider it a truth about how the world works. Note that I include the "creation of the world by design" in this category as well. I do not consider this a miracle anymore than I do the spontaneous remission of cancer and for the same reasons. Besides, the world is amazing and I love it... but if it was "designed", the designer was not very intelligent. Don't tell me to "look at the trees" when I've seen those things fall and cause destruction.

A Sign of Divine Wisdom

This would be similar, but not identical, to the above demand. What I'm evoking here is the tendency for divine revelations to contain the same errors and prejudices as the humans who receive them. You know, how the Bible didn't contain any accurate scientific information and in "science" it did contain was dead wrong? I simply expect a creator of the universe to know how his own world works. I also expect prophecies to me more than just vague predictions that can be ascribed to any event in hindsight. When we find a Holy Book that, out of no where, gives us a detailed explanation of exactly what happened before the Big Bang, for instance, and that explanation turned out to be true, I might be inclined to believe it. Until then, consider me a skeptic.

In all honestly, one or more of these three things is all it would take to get me and many other atheists to lean towards belief. It really is not asking much. Oh yeah, and I refuse to take any of these huge theistic assertions on faith. It's against my principles, no matter how good pretending to know everything feels. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

"What's the Harm?", You Say?

With a little searching using the handy dandy Google, I finally managed to find the above video. It's part 1 of the one program on the Discovery Channel that succeeded in thoroughly scaring the crap out of me as a kid. I watched it again today and found that my feelings of fear had been replaced this those of irritation.

A six-year-old boy starts to exhibit distant and moody behavior which eventually escalates into full blown tantrums and flouting of his parents' authority. His mother is convinced that there's a demon possessing him. Yup, you heard right. She gets so freaked out that she hires a Native American Shaman to help perform a exorcism ritual on the house. ...Twice. 

Now this is just a TV show supposedly based on hearsay. I don't know how much of it is true and/or remembered correctly. The superstitious mother is the only person interviewed at length. The father was skeptical in the beginning, but we get no testimony from him as to whether or not he saw fit to become a believer. Let's assume, however, that none of the events described are exaggerated. 

Let's look at the facts we know:
  • Both the mother and father work long hours and rarely see their son during the day. They leave the boy with a nanny.
  • The boy begins to play with an imaginary friend.
  • The child starts to exhibit moody and erratic behavior as the situation progresses.
  • Throughout the time of this incident, the mother treats the imaginary friend as if it were a real person and chooses to become emotional about the bad behavior rather than discipline the child.
  • The only person who claims to see or feel anything supernatural is the mother, who was convinced from the beginning that the negative events in her life were a result of the paranormal.
Now, if we ignore the extravagant video editing and overacting in the show, we reveal that the child's behavior is something that you see on almost every episode of Super Nanny. Honestly, when stripped down to the bare basics, this story is more mundane than those on Super Nanny. If the mother and father are rarely home to care for their young child, of course the child won't respect their authority. Of course the child will feel distant from his family and turn to imaginary playmates if his family is rarely around. Notice that once the mother realized something was wrong, she started actively trying to be involved in her son's life, even if only out of necessity. That's when the son's behavior improved. Even after the first exorcism, the family went about their business and the behavior perpetuated. Why is this not a red flag for some people?

I also thought it was incredibly dense of the mother to assume that the boy couldn't have possibly picked up cuss words or a story about a kidnapping at his age. As long as the boy is exposed to television or other human beings, he's going to pick things up, good and bad. Also, the story the boy told about a child murder was not detailed at all. In fact, it sounded like the reasons my parents gave me for why I shouldn't "talk to strangers" when I was a child. If he had gone into elaborate details about child molestation, then I'd be worried. However, that's not what happened. Not only that, but the mother actually went and did research on child abductions in the area and found nothing. That should have been another red flag. If the child had indeed described an event that actually happened decades before he was actually alive, then I might raise an eyebrow. As it stands, there is no reason to draw from those facts the conclusion that there's a demon in the house.

...Unless one is already convinced. 

That was the other fishy part about this story. The only person who ever saw, felt or heard anything out of the ordinary was the mother. The fact that she was so convinced and so emotional leads me to think that what she "felt" were the results of psychology. She only felt peace after the performed the native american ritual. Which brings me to another point. Most religions have some beliefs in demons and many of them involve the banishing of those demons. The ritual in the show was very different from, say, a muslim exorcism. Yet both she and muslim exorcists claim that their rituals work. Either both religions are right somehow, or the reason they appear to work is because they calm the minds of the people involved. 

Here's what worried me slightly about these events. The family did absolutely nothing practical to help this child. No discipline, no research on erratic behavior in children, no consulting an expert. If this child had had a serious illness or psychopathy, they would be allowing this child to suffer and perpetuating his problem. What's the harm in these little superstitions? They are absolutely useless when it comes to solving legitimate problems. 

Family Ties

I had a long conversation with someone last night regarding the role of family in one's life. This is something I feel rather strongly about considering my own family background and my experiences reading up on child psychology as well as my personal experiences with my friends' families.

My grandmother on my dad's side had six children, most of whom chose to stay in Michigan after graduating from college. This was the conservative Protestant side of the family, so all of my five uncles and aunts followed the traditional "get married, have 2-3 kids and have big family gatherings on Christmas and Easter" pattern. My brother and I became very close to our cousins on that side and quickly realized the advantages to having a large supportive family. My mom's side was very different. She was the youngest of three kids, her parents were divorced as was her brother. As a result, we rarely saw the whole family together and I often heard about all the problems they had. My brother and I also learned what can happen when our family members screw us over.

Being a rather maternal person by nature, I still hold the importance of family up as one of my most treasured values. Still, I have seen so many people get screwed over because of family drama. I mean, everyone has family drama to some degree. Whenever you have a large group of people together who don't necessarily agree on everything, there are bound to be some conflicts. However, I keep noticing patterns of behavior that almost inevitably lead to trouble, yet somehow people never notice them. Perhaps I can provide a short list:

Lack of Acceptance

I have an uncle who literally will not talk to me because, of all things, I like to study Russia. He's definitely one of those guys who thinks that the Cold War is still going on. I can understand people being products of their time, but what I don't understand is the need to alienate people because you disagree with them. I see this with children as well. Parents will throw children out of their houses for something a frivolous as questioning their religious beliefs. Our family members, children included, do not belong to us. They are individuals in their own right. Sometimes, the people we love and live with are going to have ideas pr practices different from our own. Cutting ourselves off from them is detrimental to both people. The person we cut off is left without a relationship that may help them later on and we left arrogant, ignorant and set in our ways. Family is something that can be our safety net when things go wrong and can share in our joy when things go right. Tearing a family apart over petty disagreements is senseless.

People Don't Understand the Concept of Love

One of my criticisms of Christianity as it's practiced today, especially among fundamentalists, is the fact that it has twisted the perfectly noble and essential notion of love into something destructive. There is this idea that God loves us all... and yet He requires worship. It is said that God love His creation unconditionally... yet He allows the torturous domain of hell to exist to punish the unfaithful. In reality, unconditional love demands neither worship, nor retribution. Unconditional love involves putting the needs of another person above ones own. It's the kind of relationship we expect to have with our mothers. This kind of love is beneficial because it often becomes a source of support and comfort when all else fails. Unconditional love also involves accepting a person despite their quirks and flaws. Yet so many people turn their relationships into power struggles. We quibble with our spouses for not doing X and Y according to our expectations. We insist on using corporal punishment on our kids, assuming that, if we don't instill them with fear early on, they'll rise up and rebel against us in the end. When we have these attitudes, we are not in loving relationships, we're mentally and emotionally masturbating. If we focus so intently on how our partners fall short of our expectations, we forget that helping each other not fall short is why you're in the relationship. We also forget the fact that WE may fall short of THIER expectations. If we insist on being at war with our children and seeing them as rivals, we are shirking our duties as parents in that we need to give to them, not the other way around. Which leads me to my third point...

We Tend to See Parenthood as an Act of Charity

When we decide to have children, we are either knowingly or unknowingly accepting a job. This is one of the hardest and most important jobs we will ever do, but it is a job nonetheless. We are entrusted, either by choice or by chance, with a small, innocent human being. Once we accept parenthood, we must do everything in our power to help that human being become a productive member of society. Yes, we MUST do this, it is not some sort of optional, charitable sacrifice. Biology, society and, quite frankly, the law, require us to care for our children. Our children do not owe us for this. Asking a child to bear some sort of debt to you for raising them is like expecting your employer to pay you extra just for showing up on time every morning. It is arrogant and selfish. Even if we did have some sort of choice as to whether or not to raise our children, there would be no way our child ever COULD repay such a debt. All such a burden on a child does is trap them in an emotional sinkhole of feeling unworthy of their parents' love. When those parents die, those children will forever feel as if they weren't able to repay their parents well enough. Parental love should be unconditional. It has nothing to do with worthiness, nor should it. If a child grows up successfully, they should consider their successes payment enough for their parents. It is a sign that those parents did their duty in teaching the child how to make good choices. The parents should be satisfied with this and be able to let the child go. Obviously, these things are easier said than done. We need to start by realizing that our children are individuals. They are not our enemies, nor our crosses to bear. They are not burdens and they are not vessels for which to inject our values. We have a responsibility to them as the wiser, more mature ones. Those who need their kids to validate them probably are not ready to have kids. Full stop.

We Don't Laugh or Forgive Often Enough

Everyone screws up. Absolutely everyone. When living with family members, we are going to be involved in or witness a lot of screw ups. One thing I learned in Russia was that a sense of humor often helps lighten the mood when something goes wrong and makes us realize that whatever happened isn't the end of the world. Yet all too often, we take ourselves too seriously and become offended when we're on the victim end of the screw up. Sometimes, we choose to hold grudges that last for years. My grandma and grandpa on my mom's side got a divorce after my grandpa's issues with his mother overwhelmed him and caused him to make some stupid decisions. To this day, my grandma cannot forgive him. She lives her life in the hole she dug by living in the past and not letting go. It's a very lonely and unhappy situation for her. Forgiveness is hard, but it pays off in the end. But you knew that, right?

We Freak Out About the Wrong Damn Things

I cannot say this enough. We are so spoiled in this country that we have the luxury of worrying about things that really do not matter. I repeat the point I made in my post about gay marriage. Why on earth should we care who is marrying whom when there are so many worse things?? In the course of the conversation I had last night, my friend stated that, if there was a huge destructive pandemic that forced the world into a legitimate state of emergency, everyone would have to be a conservative because we wouldn't have the money for government programs or abortion on demand. I was floored. If there was a world-wide emergency, I would hope that no one would CARE either way about any of these things. They are so incredibly petty in the big scheme of things and yet we let them dominate our minds to the point where we ostracize people who don't share our views on them. This tears apart not only our friendships, but our families. I have relatives that I know nothing about because two generations back, a protestant married a catholic and both families shunned the couple. To an objective, rationally thinking person, this is utterly ridiculous. Both people were Christians! They followed the same religion! Yet a petty little difference of denomination caused a feud. A happy family life was denied these people simply because their family members couldn't get past their prejudices. My mom has a tendency to literally cry over spilled milk. All my grandma has to do is knock something over and my mom will start yelling. Is this reaction really necessary? Of course not. But we tend to not question our thoughts and beliefs. We tend to just let our emotions run wild. We all too often to this to the detriment of ourselves and others.

What is my point? My point is that families are not perfect and never will be. Still, by putting in a little effort and critical thinking, we can enjoy beneficial relationships with our relatives, close and far. Of course, creating such relationships involves giving of ourselves without the expectation of payment. This is difficult, but usually worth it.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Glee" and Atheists In Popular Culture

Today, I re-watched an old episode of the Fox TV show "Glee". This was the third episode of the second season entitled "Grilled Cheesus". This episode focused on religion and the role of religion in the lives of the characters.

First of all, I think this was a great topic. I in no way oppose public discussion of religion and faith in general. Exposing kids to the issues and viewpoints at hand isn't a bad idea. I also (generally) approve of the Glee approach. Glee always presents its story in an exaggerated and satirical way, which often lightens up what would otherwise be rather heavy. 

As is to be expected, I did have some problems with this episode. These problems happen to be the same ones I have with almost every popular reference to atheists. I feel that the non-religious are often misrepresented, though I can almost understand this considering that "nonreligious" is a very broad term. I felt that, in this Glee episode, the religious characters were portrayed realistically and used arguments that I hear used often by theists. The atheist characters, however, we the typical atheist stereotypes who cite present or past trauma as reasons for their unbelief. The two atheists in the show, Sue and Kurt, both assert that their personal issues led to their lack of faith, Sue with her sister and Kurt with the fact that he felt persecuted for being a homosexual. While some atheists may have lost faith over experiences such as these, they are rarely the only reasons. Furthermore, such stereotypes only perpetuate the idea that atheists are inherently bitter, grumpy or angry people. Anyone who believes this needs to spend more time with atheists.

I also took issue with the fact that both Sue and Kurt busted their butts to silence the theists in the story. Again, this only perpetuates some very, very bad misconceptions. There are no laws against being openly religious in the public schools. The schools themselves simply cannot promote religiosity. In the case of the Glee club, the children were the ones choosing the songs and the religious pieces were performed for artistic, rather than promotional, reasons. This would have been just fine in American public schools. Yet the both the school and the atheists in Glee appeared to be persecuting the religious characters, something that only happens in the minds of the fundamentalists.

It also bothered me slightly that Kurt was portrayed during the church scene as being rather ignorant of Christianity (he crosses himself in a baptist church). Statistically, many people who choose to reject religious teaching don't do so blindly. Many of them are indeed familiar with the rituals and teachings of the various religions. In some cases, that knowledge is what led to their lack of belief. I was also irritated by the fact that Mercedes virtually chastised Kurt for not "believing in something greater" after Kurt specifically said that he drew comfort from strong people such as his father. 

Don't get me wrong, I love Glee and I think that the topic was a good one. I just wish that the nonbelievers in the group had been portrayed less as angry victims and more as people who acquire peace and hope from the world around them rather than a world beyond. In the end, I think it's safe to say that we have the same struggles as everyone else, we just choice to deal with them differently. Should not our methods be given a fair representation?

Why Is This Even An Issue?

Famines, floods, earthquakes, wars, terrorists, climate change, disease. Amidst this list of ailments, a significant number of Americans and their elected officials are expelling copious amounts of hot air on... who gets to marry whom. Quite frankly, I should not have to explain why this debate is infantile. The solution is simple: let people legally marry whomever they choose and live your own life. God forbid you have to actually share a planet with people whose views and lifestyles differ from your own! Apparently, this is too much to ask. At least, that's the conclusion I couldn't help but come to upon reading a post a blog entitled "Muslim Masculinity and Islamic Manhood" concerning "The G-Word".

The author of this blog (the title of which speaks for itself) claims to have a psychology degree from the University of Michigan. I find this rather depressing considering the fact that he appears to have been able to graduate with only a rudimentary understanding of biology. Either that, or he has either consciously or unconsciously chosen to forsake facts in the name of his religion. I don't know which would be worse. Either way, I'm going to post chunks from this man's rather brief blog entry on homosexuality and respond in an attempt to explain why attitudes like his are the epitome of what's wrong with the influence of religion is secular society today.

"My beliefs in terms of faith and principle are the foundation of my being opposed to the practice of homosexuality in both males and females. I understand and can sympathize that people can have feelings for others of the same sex. However the practice of same sex intimacy and relationships is where I am apposed to." 

I wish to note two facts about this introduction to the blog entry. Firstly, he freely admits that his views are based, not on fact, but on FAITH. Keep this in mind. Secondly, this man claims to be against the "practice" of homosexuality. Specifically, "intimacy and relationships". This position truly, truly irks me. If this man actually sympathized with same sex "feelings", he would not be opposed to "intimacy". The very fact that he would deny intimacy to honestly loving individuals demonstrates an appalling lack of empathy. Note that this man is not even kind enough to take the softer position of "do what you want, just don't call it marriage". He appears to be against gay relationships full stop. Put simply, other people's relationships are none of his business! If he doesn't want to have homosexual relationships, that's fine. But to be openly opposed to such private choices made by individuals that have no impact on his life is unnecessarily bigoted. It's like saying you're opposed to people putting mustard on their hamburgers or running around their own houses naked. It has nothing to do with him, yet he insists upon passing judgment. What a truly lovely human being.

One of the main reasons is that there is a severe lack of perpetuation or sustainability of the Human race. No reproduction comes out of it. 

This is where I assert that this blogger's education in both statistics and biology is severely impaired. First of all, I've seen a range of statistics for exactly how many gays there are in the population. I've seen the percentage anywhere from 3 to 10 to 30. No matter the actually number, none of these percentages are significant enough to wipe out the human race. The majority of people are still heterosexual and still having babies. They always will be. Secondly, we do not have a desperate need for more children. Many people want to have children for personal reasons, understood. However, there are so many unwanted little ones out there who need families. If you really care about the "human race" do something to help find them homes before you start mandating that people make more babies. Thirdly, being that humans are a social species, our relationships, homosexual, heterosexual or otherwise are about social cohesion as well as reproduction. This is just as biological as reproduction. Humans as well as other animals, such as bonobos and dolphins have sexual relations for the sake of bonding. Some of these relations are indeed homosexual. Other animals have homosexual relations in order to demonstrate dominance. The fact of the matter is, homosexuality is just as much a part of human biology as the birth process. If your going to use the "it's unnatural" argument, it's going to swing around and hit you in the face if you don't have a clear understanding of what "natural" means. I don't even think I should need to repeat the age old argument about infertile, elderly and electively childless couples. If you don't know it, google it.

"The clearest of proof is by simply observing your genitals. Your hands were created for you to use to grab things and eat. Your feet help you walk and kick and stand. Your nose is meant to smell things and your ears to hear and your eyes to see. Thus your penis was made to inject semen into a vagina, thus creating the beginnings of new life."

Again, you cannot just look at yourself and other people and think you understand biology. I used to think that boys had penises and girls didn't because God ran out of material when he was working on Eve. Look at how wrong I was. See my above paragraph.

"We have spiritual aspects that we must fulfill. Women are apart of that spirituality as they bring out something in us. They present us with the ability to test ourselves and our desires and strengths. The completion of Manhood and our destiny has to involve both men and women into that spiritual journey. "

You have no proof that we have "spiritual aspects" to fulfill. But religious stuff aside, has this guy ever stopped to think that it's possible to have a good, close relationship with members of the opposite sex without being sexually attracted to them? Do we not have mothers, aunts, sisters, cousins and friends? Also, if a man is gay, hang out with women isn't going to be much of a "test of his desires"... just saying.

"Now I have heard the argument many times. "There are so many kids out there who need parents and families they can go to; we already have plenty of kids to sustain Humanity." That argument may hold some wait temporarily because the vast majority of people are sexual exclusively with the opposite sex. Lets take this further though. What if most people were gay? What if everyone was gay? Humanity, due to lack of reproduction would eventually become extinct. 

This blogger's entry skips back to the population thing at this point. He also forgets how to spell "weight". But let's ignore the writing issues for now. Sure, if most of the people in the world were exclusively homosexual, there would be a problem. Still, the fact remains that THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE ARE NOT GAY. Furthermore, you CANNOT MAKE SOMEONE GAY. While it may seem like there are more gays running around now than there were 50 years ago, it's not because more people are turning gay. It's because homosexuality is becoming less taboo then it was back then. Homosexuality certainly always existed, both in feeling and in practice. The Kinsey Reports on human sexuality made this fact evident and, slowly, the taboo has begun to fade. There is no reason to believe that heterosexuality will ever die out unless the entire species dies out. The argument makes no sense.

Obviously, people have the choice to believe what they want. Even so, we must remember that when we get our values from centuries old "Holy Books" like the Qur'an, we often end up picking up the prejudices and misconceptions of the time. The reason why our society has progressed is not due to some mysterious hand of God. It's because human beings dared to question these age old ideas and many of them turned out to be dead wrong. It should also be noted that the Qur'an and Hadith do not explicitly forbid homosexuality, only anal sex. It's not just the Holy Book, it's the tradition and dogma that must also be questioned.

As far as the marriage issue goes, I say we should model our legal proceedings concerning marriage after those of Russia. In Russia, all marriages recognized by the state are, essentially, civil unions. Religious ceremonies are not legally recognized and vice versa. This way, people can choose to have only a legal ceremony, or have two ceremonies, one civil and one religious. If we had that here, gays would have the same legal rights as the rest of us and there would be no clucking from conservative groups about "imposing homosexuality" on them.

Ultimately, religions are like genitalia. Most people have them. Most people would feel lost without them. But please, don't whip them out in public and shove them in people's faces and avoid using them to make decisions that could negatively affect others. That's what brains are for.

    Macrame Metaphor

    Recently, I've been addicted to making these macrame bracelets:

    Now these are definitely no where near elaborate as it gets with this kind of art. Still, when my grandma saw what I was doing, she said that it was "miraculous" that these designs were appearing as I weaved the thread together. As soon as she said that, I knew I was one the brink of the dorkiest analogy I might ever use.

    If my grandma had not seen me making the bracelets and instead only seen the finished product, she might assume that I had bought them somewhere, perhaps even that such seemingly complex designs could not have possibly been made without the help of a machine.

    Obviously, these bracelets required no mechanical assistance and the designs are nothing more than patterns of knots. When she saw what I was doing and called it "miraculous", I proceeded to show her, step by step, how I made the bracelets. she was still impressed, but no longer convinced that there was anything especially impressive about macrame. At least, not miraculously impressive.

    Theoretically, I could have gone a step further and heped her learn how to make the bracelets herself, but she had neither the time, nor the patience.

    What on earth am I actually saying here?

    Well, a macrame bracelet is really a small matter, but the reaction that my grandmother had to my project is identical to the one that most people have when observing reality. They see it as being so complex that there must be something "more" to it. Simple forces couldn't possibly have brought all of this together. They may assume that a God was responsible for our existence, just as a person might assume that the neat patterns in the thread were machine made.

    Once we do some investigation, however, we find that the world, like the macrame bracelet, is complex, but not supernaturally complex. We can explain how it came into existence without the help from a machine, or, in this case, a God. Just as the pattern of knots is sufficient for creating an impressive design, natural forces are sufficient for creating a universe. In fact, it might be useful to not that the blue and gold bracelet, while it has a distinctive pattern to it, is indeed the result of almost random chance. I followed no blueprint to make it.

    Now, I would be satisfied if most people understood the above statements. However, in an ideal world, everyone would be taught, not only the facts of how the naturalistic universe works, but the way to find more facts using evidence and critical thinking. Here, I make an analogy to learning to make ones own bracelet. This equips us with a skill that may prove useful in the future. Critical thinking is a skill too. It is a skill that is all too often overlooked.

    Before we close up this geeky extended metaphor, let me ask you a question. Now that you know exactly how and where those macrame patterns were made, do you enjoy them any less?

    A Daimyo!

    Have I mentioned lately how much I love Oda Nobunaga?

    Probably not. Even using the name "Oda Nobunaga" gives me flashbacks to the sixth grade when I quite literally carried a Japanese history book with me everywhere I went. I also wore boys' clothing and giggled whenever so much as said the word "thing", which shows how much I knew back then. Still, a small bout of nostalgic research led me to realize how cool the first great unifier of Japan really was, even now.

    The truly sad fact is that most Americans aren't familiar with Nobunaga. He wasn't even mentioned in my World History textbook my freshman year of high school. Those who have heard of him think we was little more than a ruthless tyrant. My own uncle, a history teacher himself, even described him as having been "mean".

    Let's look at this guy in context for a moment. Japan was in the middle of a bloody civil war. The shogun was a weakling and overzealous Daimyo had taken to beating the crap out of each other. One might just as well call Abraham Lincoln "mean" (he did, after all, suspend haebeus corpus, right?). Sure, he wasn't perfect, but for his time and place, Nobunaga was pretty dang brilliant.

    The guy wasn't afraid to go against the grain. That's really saying something in a culture as rigid as that of Japan. When we read about his childhood, we find that, even then, he was an oddball, nicknamed "the fool of Owari" because he was, well, weird. Ultimately, his "weirdness" was one of his greatest assets. When the Jesuit missionaries landed on the shores of Japan, many people saw them as unwelcome and invasive. Nobunaga welcomed them and saw them as allies, to some extent. This situation was win-win: the Jesuits were allowed to live there and Nobunaga was given access to European influence. ...And by "influence", I mean "firearms".

    Essentially, this Daimyo had at least a subconscious grasp of some of the most important practices and values that we have today. He welcomed new information as a way to improve on old ways. Note also that, though he was fascinated by the Jesuits, he never converted to Christianity. This indicates that he didn't accept new information at face value, either. He chose to separate useful facts from philosophy. He realized that tradition for the sake of tradition was ultimately fruitless and thus, worked to improve upon said traditions. He was a strategist and his strategies worked. Oh yeah, and he was an atheist. ;)

    At the risk of sounding too simplistic in my analysis of history, I guess my point is that I would love to go back in time and meet this guy. Heck, I'd like to bring him back to our century and see how he would react. From all that I've read about him, he appears to have had a keen mind and a surprisingly progressive mindset. That's why I admire him.

      Dear Radical Feminists...

      ...stop giving feminists a bad name. Seriously. In fact, this message applies to all of those freedom fighters who fight so hard that they accidentally start fighting for the other side.

      There's nothing wrong with pushing for women's' equality. There's still work to be done in that area. My own mother, who has been in a management position for most of my life, just recently learned that she was being severely underpaid for most of her career because of her gender. She got a raise to make up for what had been lost, but in the end, the loss was still a loss. We also have to remain steadfast in protecting abortion rights (yes, there are those who advocate banning abortion, even in cases of rape and incest). Not to mention all the places in the world where women are treated as second class citizens.

      What I don't understand are those who assert that men are, by nature, "rapists" or "rape supporters". I also fail to see the logic in people who scoff at women who willing choose to hold more traditional roles. I mean, logic alone would tell you that liberating women involves giving them the liberty to be a housewife and mother if they want to be. You'd think that, as long as she wasn't coerced into it, wearing a hijab would be a fine decision for a women to make. Whenever I hear someone assert that "no one would ever willingly choose these things!" used in response to my questions, I can't help but be reminded of theists who claim that atheists must know deep down that there is a God. It's yet another case of the "I can't believe that everyone isn't just like me" syndrome.

      Will you cut it out?

      It's hypocritical to promote freedom and diversity, then expect everyone to be the same. This is not a difficult concept to grasp and it's something that both liberals and conservatives need to understand. I think we'd all be happier if we could just live and let live to some extent.

        Post-Memorial Day Post

        In my last post, I mentioned the fact that my family always takes me to a Memorial Day ceremony at Ft. Custer National Cemetery where my grandparents are buried. Unfortunately, this ceremony always has it's share of religiosity, no doubt to comfort those who choose faith as a method of coping with the loss of their loved ones.

        This year, one portion of the ceremony irked me more than usual. There was a long line of speakers, two of whom were politicians, though I can't remember their names. The first stood up and not only called upon God to bless families torn apart by war, but dared assert that the soldiers fighting overseas were fighting for the Judeo-Christian values that all Americans share.

        I could rant for three pages about what an awful statement this actually was, but I think I'll let several pictures I took at the cemetery make the argument for me.

        This is the grave of a Protestant Christian who served in the US Military.

        This is the grave of a Lutheran who served in the US Military.

        This is the grave of a Mormon who served in the US Military.

        This is the grave of a United Methodist who served in the US Military.

        This is the grave of a Russian Orthodox Christian who served in the US Military.

        This is the grave of a Muslim who served in the US Military.

        This soldier had no specified religion.

        I wasn't there long enough to photograph anymore, but the National Cemetery Administration has a complete list of faith symbols used on their grave markers available here:

        There are some groups here that I had never even heard of before. This alone shows that the United States is anything but a "Judeo-Christian nation". Certainly, the majority of people here subscribe to some form of Christianity, but there are many who do not. In essence, the "values" that our senator spoke of our soldiers dying for (freedom, justice, etc) are ideals that transcend religion. By attaching these values to a specific religion, this man was rhetorically slapping a good number of non-christian veterans in the face.

        Besides, values like justice and personal freedom are not biblical values. They are enlightenment values. The United States government was created to be secular for that reason. Much of the injustice, even in the North American colonies, was a direct product of religion and its adherents. By building a nation on the values that many shared regardless of religion, the ever-famous "Founding Fathers" created a heterogeneous haven for people of all faiths.

        In the end, we need to get over ourselves and walk a few miles in the shoes of the "other guy". You may find that that other guy shares more with you than you're prepared to accept.

        Criticism of Memorial Day

        Memorial Day is the bane of my existence. Seriously, I can think of few days that I despise more. Tomorrow, my family will take me, as they do every year, to Ft. Custer National Cemetery where an excessively long service will be held for the holiday. This service essentially alternates between over-emotional sentiment and mental handjobs about what a wonderful country we happen to live in.

        Why do I so detest this?

        First of all, to most people you talk to in America, the mere questioning of the sacredness of this holiday is branded as "disrespectful". That alone is enough to make my blood boil. No belief or practice should EVER be considered above or beyond question. Speaking objectively, as a person who simply is not swayed by patriotism, I think there's a lot wrong with how we celebrate Memorial Day. If people took the emotional wool off of their eyes for a moment, they too might see it. Yet most of us choose not to look at this tradition critically and shun those who do. Thus, I feel the same way about this holiday as I do about dogmatic religion.

        Secondly, I dislike "soldier worship". Now before you start passing judgement (though you probably already have) I have nothing personal against soldiers. I cannot begin to tell you how annoying it is to hear people whine when someone dares assert that being in the military is no more virtuous than any other profession. Certainly, the military is no easy job and soldiers are important members of society. I feel the same way about doctors, firemen, police officers, teachers, etc. All of these people are incredibly important and often admirable. Even so, we mustn't forget that they are still PEOPLE. Perhaps I'm a downer, but my definition of what a hero is is rather limited. I don't think that donning a uniform or carrying a title is enough to make one a hero. One who dies saving a wounded comrade is a hero, for sure. But not every soldier has done so and not all who have done so are soldiers. Don't get me wrong, both of my grandfathers were in the military and I certainly love them and respect their choices. However, I would feel the same way if they had been garbage men. The way we put our military up on a pedestal disturbs me. Why do we honor soldiers who die fighting overseas, but not doctors, reporters, philanthropists, etc. who meet similar fates? Again, it's disturbing to me that, of all the sacrifices made to keep the nation together, the ones we value the most are the ones resulting from war...

        On a related note, while we Americans are over here patting ourselves on the back for being awesome, what happens to the troops on the other side? You know, the men and women that our soldiers kill? Or have we forgotten that our side kills people too? Believe it or not, those "enemies" have families. Mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children who will never meet their fathers or mothers. We conveniently choose to forget them and they fact that they too were sacrificed. Even during World War II, not all members of the German army were avowed Nazis. Most of them were probably just average people like you and I. And yet they are forgotten. Even more disturbing: what about the innocent civilians killed? Why forget them?

        We already have a nationalistic holiday, Independence Day. I can almost understand that one. The founding of the country is something to be patriotic about. Death is not. A day when we're supposed to be honoring the deaths of soldiers is NOT a day to feel good about ourselves. If we're going to have a day like this, we should honor ALL of the sacrifices made, soldiers AND civilians. We should take this time to realize that the fact that such tragedies still take place means that we are still any thing BUT a perfect nation.

        Ultimately, I wish people would stop taking life so lightly. I don't believe in a heaven or afterlife and there's no reason to believe in one. Each of us only gets one life. The fact that we take this precious gift away from each other so easily is frightening to me. We should be looking for ways to end wars, not celebrate them.

        Again, I have nothing against soldiers or people's need to feel patriotic. I just feel that this patriotism is tragically misguided and you'd better believe I'm bitter about it.

          Reality: A Thought

          One who possesses the truth should have nothing to fear from critical investigation.

          If a person's beliefs are based on reality, there should be no need to indoctrinate or shield their children from other points of view because the truth will make itself apparent upon investigation.

          Doubt should not be regarded as sinful, for doubt stifled by simple facts only leads to more firm belief.

          Doubt that is fueled by simple facts protects us from error and gullibility.

          The ability to explore and reason is the only truly great faculty we have. Why not use it?

          If the map and the ground disagree, the map is wrong. Wouldn't a more accurate map serve us better?

          Shouldn't we say the same about a more accurate perception of reality?


          How many of us have made the mistake of thinking we were "in love" with someone when we really weren't? You know, sometimes we spot someone who we find attractive and create an image of that person in our heads. More often than not, we learn that the person in our minds is different than the person in real life. That's when our hearts are broken.

          Truly loving someone means seeing that person for who they are, not for what they could or should be. It means accepting that that person is not perfect, but still caring for and encouraging them, not despite, but because of their quirks. This unconditional acceptance is one of the keys to a long term relationship with an individual.

          I choose to seek this kind of relationship with the universe.

          I've come to the conclusion that the world is not perfect. Sometimes, it downright sucks and I brood and fume that I hate it. Still, I refuse to make myself believe that somewhere, somehow my environment will come to resemble the idea of perfection that I have in my head. I'm not going to convince myself that there exists a flawless place where flawless beings dwell, because there's a good chance that such a place probably does not exist. If I spend my lifetime searching and pining for some sort of heavenly metaphysical realm that meets my standards of unblemished goodness, I will always come up empty handed. I will be little more than an old maid who wasted her life on the quest for the "perfect man" and in doing so pushed away all of the imperfect but nonetheless wonder men she met.

          In my universe I seek, not a Dulcinea made just for me, but a vast plane littered with thousands of stars and galaxies, all of which are imperfect but whose imperfections make them awe inspiring.

          I'm done with fables and false hopes.

          I want my love for the universe to be unconditional.

          That is why I am an empiricist.

          Our Beliefs Are Not the Default

          From a very young age, I knew that the study of foreign language was for me. One of my favorite things to do was to check cassette tapes in Spanish out of the library and drive my family crazy trying to learn words and phrases. However, no matter how much I learned about the language, I always thought of English as my first language. Everything else, as far as I was concerned, had just been translated over. I distinctly remember thinking to myself "I'm really lucky to live somewhere where they speak the original language!".

          Of course, my perception was completely wrong in that case and I soon learned that, while english may have been MY default language, it certainly wasn't everyone else's. It was far from being the "original" anything. In fact, the more I studied linguistics, the more I realized that if I wanted to learn a foreign language with any degree of proficiency, I would actually have to ignore my natural tendency towards English and teach myself to think in that foreign language.

          How is this story relevant? In short, beliefs are often the same way, though we rarely think of them as such.

          In his famous novel "The Brothers Karamazov", Dostoevsky insinuates that the non-religious among us are such because they want to rebel. In one of the courtroom scenes near the end, Ivan, the atheist brother, shouts "what son does not secretly wish to kill his father?" using the theme of patricide as an analogy for man's relationship with God. Even now, there are a good number of theists who will assert that atheists only claim not to believe in God. They secretly know that God is real. They just choose to deny Him. In the same vein, we all remember the "you know it's a myth" billboard that caused such a hullabaloo around Christmastime.

          The simple truth is that no, not everyone secretly knows that you're right. In fact, no matter how strongly you believe something or how many people agree with you, there is no guarantee that you ARE right. In the case of religious belief, there is no denying that, in the end, what you believe is a matter of faith. Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, pagans and countless other sects all claim to have witnessed miracles, received divine knowledge and have thought their beliefs through logically. All of them believe, to varying degrees, that their beliefs are true. Many of these beliefs contradict each other. It's impossible that all of them are right. But as matt Dillahunty often says "they could all be wrong".

          Along these lines, it is also fallacious for an atheist to assume that a theist knows that their beliefs are "all bullshit". While "atheism" is not in and of itself a belief and thus, has no burden of proof, it is unfair of us to assume that deep down, everybody thinks like us. In a world where most people claim belief in the supernatural, we also have a responsibility to think, reason and listen to the beliefs of others, though we may not agree.

          I remember, in my own religious days, listening to atheists and thinking "if only they knew what I believed, they would turn to God. They've only heard extremists, they don't know any of the good arguments." Then I actually began speaking with nontheists and discovered, to my shock, that not only had they HEARD my arguments, but they understood them completely. I learned then that it is possible for someone to understand our points of view entirely and still not hold to them.

          This is why I attempt humility. Every person I get to know, be they liberal or conservative, atheist or theist, has taught me something. Though I often try to convince, I also want to hear what everyone else has to say. Maybe I'm wrong on certain things. Maybe not. Either way, I acknowledge the fact that I am not omniscient, nor are my values universal. This doesn't make me weak or a fence sitter. It makes me honest and a free thinker.

          Addressing the Free Will Defense

          During the first semester of last year, I took a very enlightening philosophy of religion class. One of the most complex pieces of work we studied was the so-called "free will defense" propositioned by the Protestant analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Little did I know that this response to the ever famous problem of evil would continue to rear its head as I furthered my knowledge of Christian religious belief. I've heard variations of the free will defense used by everyone from VenomFangX to the Priest at the local Russian Orthodox Church. It's quite widely accepted among modern Christians and yet I personally found it unconvincing.

          In a nutshell, the free will defense attempts to counter the notion that an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omniscient being couldn't possibly have created a world in which evil and suffering is so rampant. The idea is that God allows evil to happen so as not to infringe on human free will.

          My objections and questions concerning this line of reasoning can be explained thus:

          1. Is human free will actually possible considering God's omniscience? 

          Most Christians pose that God is not only all powerful, but that He knows everything. Our innermost thoughts, every detail of our past actions, all of the wisdom in the universe. Logically, we can deduce that a truly omniscient God must also know the future. However, if the future is already known, that must indicate some sort of set, predestined future. In other words, if the future is already in place, we as individuals can't possibly have any choice in how it plays out. Some Christians (and many Muslims as well) assert that God does not know every detail of the future, but rather, all possible futures and it's up to the individual which future they will choose. However, if God does not know our ultimate future choices, then there are things that God does not know. In that case, God would not truly be omniscient. No matter how the situation is spun, God's omniscience appears to be incompatible with human free will.

          2. What About Human Suffering? 

          Ignoring my above objection, the free will defense appears to address the problem of man's evil actions. However, it does not address the problem of SUFFERING, especially suffering caused by natural disasters that people have no control over. Surely, man having free will has no effect on whether or not hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes happen. Some would argue that such disasters are God's punishment for evil done by man using their own free will (Westburo Baptist Church, anyone?). Even in this case, natural disasters seldom, if ever, only effect "evildoers" and generally result in the deaths of many innocents. The original question stands, how can God allow the suffering of countless innocent people if He is truely omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscient?

          3. Why Don't People Freely Choose Good? 

          Some, such as J.L. Mackie would argue that free will and determinism are actually compatible. Theoretically, couldn't God have created humans with free will who freely chose good rather than evil? Why would God have given the supposed characters of Adam and Eve the tendency towards rebellion in the first place and/or why would he give the serpent the ability to tempt them? Plantinga argues that free will and determinism are utterly incompatible. Still, the notion of compatiblism gives us something to chew on in this situation.

          4. Is Free Will Really Compatible With Biblical Events? 

          Since we're speaking mainly in the context of Christianity here, this needs to be addressed. The Bible is full of examples of God intervening in the lives of both His people and His enemies. Exodus 4:21, 7:3, 7:13, 9:12, 10:1, 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, 14:4 and 14:8 all state very plainly that God Himself "hardened the heart" of the Pharaoh of Egypt so that he would not allow the slaves the leave-- sapping pharaoh of his free will. Romans 8:29-30 also states very clear that salvation is predestined. Romans 9:22 indicates that our actions are also preordained to some extent. These are only a few examples of places where God is said to have intervened in people's lives. Furthermore, many Christians believe in the power of intercessory prayer and in miracles performed by God. It seems that, all things concerned, there is little in traditional Christian teaching that validates the notion that humans have free will.

          Is Free Will Really a Good Thing? 

          When I discuss the issue of the problem of evil and free will with Christians, such as VenomFangX, they often react as if free will is something absolutely necessary for God to give us because He loves us so much. My question is simply "what's so great about free will??". VenomFangX asserts that without free will, we would be forced to love God and forced love isn't love at all. This is also a common explanation for why people are sent to hell, they, essentially, "choose" to go to hell by not loving God. Yet, it seems nonsensical that a loving being would allow us to have complete freedom if the consequences of making the wrong choices are as dire as eternal suffering. Let's, for a moment, use the analogy of a parent and child, one that is often used to describe the positions of God and man. Parents are responsible for loving their children and part of this involves allotting the child some manner of freedom, I will grant you that. However, if the circumstances are dire enough, the parent will forsake some of the child's freedom in order to protect the child. When we cross a busy street with a young child, we would restrain the child if it tried to run out into traffic. Anyone who didn't would be branded a terrible parent and perhaps even, a terrible person. The child wouldn't be blamed for running out in traffic if he or she simply did not know any better. We may as well apply a similar situation to God and man. Why is absolute freedom so important to God that He would allow a majority of His beloved creation to run out into metaphysical traffic and risk suffering eternally simply because they don't know any better? Was it not God who created free will and thus, put such an emphasis on it Himself? Was this choice truly benevolent, or do our morals come from some cosmic truth apart from God? If the latter is true, is God really omnipotent?

          Who is Really Making This Argument Anyway? 

          One of the big problems I see with the free will defense in general is that it is obviously the product of a modern society in which we are granted the luxury of freedom and where suffering is minimal. This is little more than an educated assumption, of course and I don't consider it a part of my actual argument, but I think it's worth discussing. When we see the after effects of natural disasters, for instance, the religious involved rarely shrug their shoulders and chalk the disaster up to God allowing man to be free. Those who are oppressed don't thank the Lord for granting their oppressors the freedom to do evil. People in these situations assert that God has a plan to get them out of their mess or at the very least pray that He will intervene. These people seem to be invoking some sort of fate NOT free will. How often have we heard the phrase "everything happens for a reason" as a means of consolation? Free will isn't a biblical value, it's an enlightenment value. The use of free will as a defense is one of the most obvious projections of modern values onto ancient beliefs in order to keep them relevant. This leads us to wonder how much we really need these ancient beliefs if we're so good at forming positive values without them.

          Lastly, I'm not even completely convinced that we as humans HAVE free will, all talk of God aside. I don't believe in fate or cosmic "reasons" for things, but it seems that much of what we do is guided by what happens around us. We are thrust into situations that we seldom choose and are forced to make decisions. Often, these decisions are influenced by biological instincts/natural laws, manmade laws and social pressures. In other words, I tend to think we have some freedoms, but we are anything but completely free. I guess it all comes down to one's definition of "free will", which is an entirely separate discussion.

          My point is simply that I don't see free will as an apt reply to the problem of evil and not simply because I have no desire to believe. Actually, the problem of evil/suffering is NOT in and of itself an argument against to existence of a deity. If one believed in a cruel God, a God with limited power or a God with limited knowledge, the problem of suffering would be no problem at all. However, when we want to have our metaphysical cake and eat it too, we have to accept that what we're trying to do is inherently contradictory. Ultimately, we must accept, in this case either the agnostic position of "I guess I don't know how it works" or the "faith rather than reason" position. Either way, I see no justification for my own belief.

            On Lacking Faith

            [Originally posted on May 18, 2011]

            I believe it was Ray Comfort (though I could be wrong, don't take my word for it) who claimed that every person has a God-shaped hole in his heart. This means that everyone, whether they realize it or not, yearns to feel the presence of their supposed creator and then, only then, will a person feel true peace, love and happiness. Ray is not alone in his belief. It is common place, at least in America, to assume that faith is some sort of necessity that people feel lost or unfulfilled without. My parents once told me that they wanted me to go to church because they wanted to "provide me with all the tools I would need to get through hardships in life". Those of us who lack faith are often told that we're being prayed for by our more pious loved ones. I mean no offense to these well meaning people, but the notion that all people need to have faith in something is simply untrue. It certainly was untrue for me.

            Like most young Americans, I was raised protestant and went to church and sunday school regularly for most of my childhood. At that age, I simply accepted it as something that everyone did. When I heard Bible stories, my mental reaction was the three-year-old brain equivalent of "cool story, bro" followed by an intense desire to play with my stuffed animals. As I grew older, I quickly began to realize that there was more to this church stuff than just going somewhere on Sundays and telling stories about floods and arks. My cousins (who, to this day, are fundamentalist Christians) often talked about Jesus in everyday life outside of church! I was shocked! In mid-elementary school, my best friend's father was a minister at a local Dutch Reformed church. I didn't even realize there was any difference between us until my parents (never fans of the Dutch themselves) explained to me that she was "a different religion than me" because we attended a Methodist church.

            Little events like these were what put in motion my lifelong search for faith. I constantly asked myself "what do I actually believe?". At this point, having been raised Christian, I didn't even consider other faiths an option for me. I simply studied Christianity and accepted what I wanted from various traditions (e.g. I believed the stuff about loving your neighbor, but didn't take the ark story literally.) Still, I found it difficult to pin down exactly what I was. People around me were constantly conveying to me that I had to believe in SOMETHING, yet I struggled to figure out what that something was.

            In middle school, I began studying Freemasonry. While Freemasonry is NOT a religion in and of itself, it is a fraternal organization, the members of which value the unity of all peoples of all faiths. At this point, I held to the idea that all religions had some truth to them. I also thought that I might convert to zen buddhism someday so I could become a samurai. Yes... maybe we should skip over middle school... there are too many weird stories...

            In short, as a child I was constantly questioning things and never completely satisfied with the answers I got. Even if I did except that all religions contained some truth, what if I was wrong and ended up in someone's hell? What if God, for some reason, didn't want me to believe in Him? It wasn't that I didn't have answers to my faith questions, it was that there were too many answers all around all of them different and none of them completely inerrant. To make matters even more confusing for me, both of my parents loved to study and read about religion. As a result, I was constantly hearing about the new discoveries made about Christianity and Christian history that contradicted traditional teachings. These findings were scientifically and archeologically sound. They were evidentially supported. The older I got, the more my reasons for believing seemed to disappear.

            It wasn't until I accepted this fact that I finally found some peace of mind. When I decided to stop worrying about faith and started focusing on what I knew was objectively real, the less I worried. I began to rely on my own mind and abilities to solve problems instead of praying for things to happen. I took comfort in the fact that whether or not I did well or poorly was entirely my responsibility. I found that I loved my friends and family even more than I had before because I realized that many of the blessings in my life came, not from supernatural forces such as God or karma, but from these wonderful people. Before me was the world as it always had been. Yet I was now able to see this world, not as sinful and fallen, but as beautiful, if only imperfect.

            Just to clarify, I did not become a non-believer BECAUSE of these things. These realizations all took place after I relinquished unjustified faith claims. As always, I continue to search for the truth. If it were proven tomorrow that a God did exist, I would happily change my views. But I no longer seek tirelessly to justify conclusions that I had come to without evidence. I have traded in the search for faith for a search for truth.

            My heart is more full than it ever has been. That much is undeniable. I was once religious because I was told that a man walked on water. I am now a humanist because I have seen a man walk on the moon. I don't think there's any need to point out which one of those, for me, is more breathtaking.