Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christmas News

http://nutsandreasons.blogspot.com/2010/12/britain-now-majority-non-religious.html

Britain now a majority non-religious nation

In the latest 2010 BSA report, published earlier this month, only 42% said they were Christians while 51% now say they have no religion.

Well I’m sure somebody on the religious side will break the silence on this news in the upcoming days. Perhaps there will be condemnations. Perhaps they will warn that this is another sign of society’s moral decay. You know, just like how the Pope says that secularism is responsible for creating a moral environment conducive to child rape.

I mean, come on. Look at all those countries with the largest percentages of atheists: Sweden, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Finland, Estonia. Aren’t they all collapsing into disrepair?

Happy Holidays everybody!

Respecting the Constitution

http://caffeinatedthoughts.com/2010/12/the-repeal-of-dont-ask-dont-tell-and-its-potential-impact-on-religious-liberty/

The Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and its Potential Impact on Religious Liberty

One issue that hasn’t been adequately addressed in the media is how the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will impact the religious liberty of military chaplains (as well as soldiers) who believe that homosexuality is sinful.

Apart from pointing out the incessant whining that is characteristic of people who are convinced that the presence of people who disagree with their religious certainty somehow affects their religious liberty, I must point out another important point that this person most likely never considered.

There shouldn’t be chaplains in the military in the first place.

We should not be using taxpayer dollars to hire people to advocate positions of faith. The act of hiring chaplains fails every legal principle out there, and it has absolutely no secular purpose. It violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution of the United States, and I very much look forward to a day when this hiring policy is challenged.

James Madison, nicknamed “the father of the Constitution”, not only co-authored the First Amendment, but wrote the following:

The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation.

If religious people want us to honor their religious liberty, I say fine. I don’t care what faith-based morality you want to promote, as long as it is only advocated at home, church, or other privately-owned outlets. But when tax dollars go into your cause, that violates my liberties and the rights of thousands of nonreligious service members.

The State of the Nation

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40732028/ns/technology_and_science-science/

4 in 10 Americans still hold creationist views

If you’re in a room of 100 people, odds are likely about 40 think God created humans about 10,000 years ago, part of a philosophy called creationism, according to a Gallup poll reported Friday (Dec. 17). That number is slightly lower than in years past and down from a high of 47 percent in both 1993 and 1999.

The optimists will say that this is progress, but I just want to point out how long the road really is.

Note that in addition to this group of creationists, another 38 percent of Americans believe that God directed evolution over millions of years. How this supposed process actually worked and what evidence there is of such divine interventions is never really described in detail by these people, which is not at all surprising. I, holding the radical “opinion” that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, think a theory of evolution that involves supernatural guidance is an affront to the actual theory of evolution. Supernatural evolutionists maintain that all of these happenings in the past — the slow and indifferent processes that have led to the extinction of 99% of all species including multiple human species — were designed and coordinated so that we are sitting here today. This is an attack on science, not only because it speculates about the supernatural, but also, by inserting God’s hand into the picture, it destroys the role that an indifferent environment plays in determining “fitness” (a term that is too often misunderstood to be equivalent to traits like strength and intelligence). Supernatural evolution is not only bad science, nonscience, and pseudoscience, but it is based on the lie that we evolved as a specially designed creature.

For the 40 percent who think that the Earth is 10,000 years old, Richard Dawkins points that that these people aren’t just wrong, but so incredibly wrong that it is “proportional” to saying that the distance from New York to San Francisco is about ten yards.

Americans’ views on human origins varied significantly by level of education and religion, the poll found. Those with less education were more likely to hold a creationist view that God created life thousands of years ago, while college graduates were more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution.

I know I repeat this point over and over, but there is and always has been a solution to this problem: education. Virtually every poll, every study finds that as you give people the opportunity to receive a good education (e.g., when you increase the percentage of people going to college), the baseline statistics all rise, leading to not only a decline in religiosity, but also declines in crime, poverty, along with gains in health and social harmony. This is especially why it is so important, at a time when we are beginning to realize that America is not leading the world anymore in basic science education, that we resist the attempts by creationists to pressure our public schools and universities to teach their packaged ideas. If creationists really want their ideas in textbooks, they should not take the political shortcut, but try to first get their ideas peer reviewed and published in journals, just like how every other scientist in the world operates.

Science: a Wondrous Pursuit

These are just two of the many Symphony of Science videos that are on Youtube; they all intrigue me very much. Unfortunately, as a nonscientist, I may never really understand the technical details of physics, biology, or other sciences, but the importance of videos like these is that the wider public can really appreciate the beauty and poetry that flows from study of the natural world. The awe-inspiring scenes of scientific eye-candy combine with musically-tuned quotes from great modern thinkers. What more can you ask for?

17 Years Ago…

17 years ago, President Clinton promised to repeal the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. After Congressional phone lines were flooded with calls of opposition and pressure from all sorts of religious and political groups mounted, policy-makers instead struck a deal that later became to be known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Now that deal is over, by law.

I am astonished at how far we’ve come. Polls show consistently that a majority of Americans support repealing DADT. 17 years ago, it could have easily been the Family Research Council, the Catholic Church, and the Southern Baptist Convention (they all still oppose open service) organizing a huge rally in front of Congress for a decisive vote, but this year, virtually all the people who show up support repeal.

We will join virtually every other developed nation by having a military that does not discharge or investigate its members because of their sexual orientation.

From these 17 years, we should realize that we should, even in the face of overwhelming pressure and opposition, keep trying and trying and trying. Sometimes you never even realize how much things have changed.

Neanderthals, etc.

Rarely in our self-centered understanding of life do we consider that there were countless lost generations of beings that lived alongside us and were very very much like us. The current archaeological and scientific investigations into the Neanderthals, for example, suggest the following:

a) They lived in very tight-knit clans and sometimes had large group gatherings.

b) They buried their dead, and seemed to decorate the graves and show respect for the body.

c) They didn’t just make tools, but made a sophisticated glue that could be be reheated and remolded. The process to make this glue involved heating it to right temperatures in an oxygen-less environment. (How did they do that?)

d) They used this glue to connect stones to wood to make effective tools, which allowed them to be good hunters.

e) They probably had an oral language.

f) They probably collected plants that had medicinal properties.

I suspect that there’s a very good possibility that these creatures, like humans, had a concept of self-identity. They could have had their own philosophical thoughts, their own fears, their own religions and gods. Judging from their burial sites, they may have had a concept of the soul and the afterlife.

In fact, as recently as 50,000 years ago, there probably were at least four different kinds of “humans” living at the same time. The fact that only we eventually flourished (we almost joined the 99% of the other species that went extinct) is no warrant for arrogance. Instead, we should study with greater depth the remarkable lives of our not-so-distant relatives and appreciate their roles and accomplishments in our evolutionary past.

Dolphins!

I’ve also heard that pairs of Dolphins that have been trained to repeatedly do a set of tricks, when instructed to “create a new trick,” will briefly converse with each other and then perform a synchronized trick that they have not ever done before. This shows that Dolphins not only have complex communication, but they are capable of piecing known elements together abstractly and projecting their ideas socially. Amazing!

Oh, BTW, Exploration Films is a Christian, anti-evolution distribution company.

Why I Left Christianity

It is not rare that whenever someone tries to convince me about the apparent truth of Christian claim, he or she begins with a plethora of apologies: apologies for things from the Inquisition to sex abuse to Galileo’s torture to Pat Robertson. And after this long line of apologies for things I haven’t even had time to bring up, he or she then tells me that I should really direct my attention not to what humans do “in the name of religion” but only to what the true essence of the faith really is.

Of course, there’s nothing that excites me more about discussing what the true essence of Christianity really is.

As a prelude, I want to address those people — I call them pseudo-Christians — who say they are Christian but don’t actually believe there is any history in the Bible. They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, or that he even existed. I’ve met only a couple of these people in my life, and they say that Jesus, whether he existed or not, was a good person and a exemplary role model, that his message was to love one another and to treat each other well.

Of course, even I take issue with this because Jesus was certainly not the revolutionary who somehow discovered human kindness. Confucius, for example, taught the Golden Rule centuries before Jesus. The values of tolerance, generosity, selflessness are all found, arguably in stronger forms, in many Eastern philosophies. Personally, I think that morality comes not from prophets and tablets, but from a continuing dialectic, a conversation and debate between social creatures that, thanks to evolution, are innately inclined to show empathy and love. Of course, that’s another topic.

What I think is the true essence of Christianity is the composed of the following ideas:

1) We are born sick and imperfect, and commanded to be perfect.

The human condition, according to Christians, is a result of Genesis account of the Fall of Man. Why are we all “really really bad people” as many Christians claim? Because our very distant ancestors (dating back to a couple thousand years ago, as Young Earth Creationists say) decided to sin against God and to disobey him by taking fruit from, of all things, the Tree of Knowledge. As descendants, we all share in the guilt and responsibility for this condition resulting from this egregious rebellion. We are born sinful and imperfect, but in the light of God, we must strive to be perfect.

This is a cruel and unusual set of circumstances to be born into. First of all, children are never responsible for actions of their parents. Also, if it is the case that a person is born a certain way, then he or she is not responsible for that condition. If you are born imperfect, you are not responsible to be a perfect person, although you can and should be expected to be a decent person, which is very different, and much more realistic.

I often hear Christians assert that God can rightfully demand that we be perfect because God himself is perfect, but I think this is a morally bankrupt argument. Having a quality does not enable you to rightfully demand that others have it: I may be able to communicate better than people with autism or walk better than people born without legs, but I have no right to command or even expect people who are born a certain way to be like me.

2) You can suffer an eternity in Hell, depending on what you think.

In the Christian worldview, why is God’s command for us to be perfect so important? Because if you are imperfect, God cannot accept you into Heaven. For your few decades of imperfectness on Earth, you are headed by default to a very very bad place for eternity.

What really shocks me is how Christians rationalize this concept. In a Q&A session called Stump the Chump at UChicago, the speaker said that Hell was an eternal place for those who deliberately say “no” to God; God then merely grants you your wish and leaves you alone, forever.

I personally have never met an atheist (or a person of another religion) who has said “I want to go to Hell and leave you. Grant me this wish.” There is all the difference in the world between saying “no” to someone and not believing in the existence of that someone. The atheist (and non-Christian theist) simply does not believe in the existence of Yahweh or the divinity of Jesus or Hell, similar to how Christians don’t believe in Thor or reincarnation.

But to Christians, this difference doesn’t matter. Children are still going to be taught that they will end up in a place of eternal suffering with no way out if they don’t believe as Christians do.

3) God can wipe you clean, but only after a human sacrifice.

Yes you should know by now that, for the few billion seconds that you have left to live, your private thoughts and opinions about religion matter, and they matter a whole lot. According to Christians, you can only escape this cruel and unusual circumstance by somehow changing your thoughts to a less sinful one: by believing and accepting that Jesus Christ died on the cross for you. In short, the story is that God sent himself in human form to Earth, and then allowed himself to be tortured to death by other human beings. Only then are we washed clean, and this shows God’s forgiveness of our sins across the boundary of time.

This very story shows: how sins can be retroactively and vicariously dissolved, how forgiveness is only possible by punishment (or self-punishment), and how people can only partake in this deal if they are part of the Christian circle, that is, if they don’t have a different opinion about religion.

Most striking is the conditionality. Forgiveness and the cleansing of sin can only come through physical torture, and this torture and pain is not in any proportion to the crime. It does not matter if you are a vegetarian Buddhist or a homicidal Stalinist; either way the correct and just punishment for your very nature is extremely severe — far more severe, interestingly, than what Jesus himself supposedly experienced for a limited time on Earth.

Which brings us to the method. The method for which you may release the responsibility to God for being sinful is by putting the blame on someone else, who is himself God. Christians automatically assume that this process is morally sound and possible, although one can’t deny that this is what Christopher Hitchens calls “scape-goating,” the piling of sins on another object. The other issue with this is the questionable scale of the punishment. If it is true that we are bound for torture in Hell forever, how is it that a temporary period of torture of Jesus can relieve us of this debt? It must be bluntly noted that what Jesus went through was, for example, nothing compared to what victims of the Holocaust or Unit 731 experienced. Christians may argue that a divine being like Jesus deserves less torture, but why then does God need to torture (himself) at all to forgive humans for being imperfect?

Last is the exclusivity. For Christians, it is not enough to say that what is done is done: that Jesus saves all of humanity, and that’s it. Instead, we have a religion that compels you take that leap of faith and believe, on pain of eternal damnation. So exclusive is this arrangement that about 70% of the people on Earth right now are not Christian. Whenever I ask by how much Hell overpopulates Heaven, I never get a serious answer.

Perhaps this is why Christians disagree on what happens to people who never had the opportunity to hear about Christianity (e.g., very young children, people in isolated tribes, etc). The default position in the Bible is that these people will not be saved. Of course, there are countless Christians who protest and insist that this can’t be the case, saying that they trust God that there is actually more fairness in the system (ignoring the fact that the system is stacked against you in the first place). What we have here is the classic case of Christians unable to reconcile what is written down on paper with their common sense and reason. The existence of so much cognitive dissonance amongst Christians, I believe, is not evidence for the soundness of their ideas, but of their problematic nature.

4) Human Beings Can Know the Supernatural

By no means does Christianity have a monopoly on this idea, but it is certainly at the center of Christian thought.

It is always to me a profane and repulsive idea that human beings can claim to know amazingly accurate details about the nature and commands of God.  Religious people in general, whenever they run out of arguments, go into “assert” mode, asserting that God wills this and that, that the nature of the after-life is a certain way, that God says this is wrong and that is okay.

I’m being too general, of course. What really happens is that people read their books and find out that God intervenes in this world in all kinds of ways: in the real estate market by promising land to certain groups of homo sapiens, in marriage and relationships by defining sexual boundaries and marriage rights, in dietary habits by making some animals sacred. This of course leads not to greater wisdom or knowledge, but greater conflict and ignorance. So much is at stake in the world that we cannot afford to quibble about theology while ignoring reality.

—–

In conclusion, the true essence of Christianity is compared to the world of science, secular humanism, and reason.

Christians say that, even when lacking reasons to believe, the act of knowing things by faith is a great virtue. In direct contrast to this, Socrates argued that true wisdom is acknowledgement of one’s own ignorance. In other words, what atheists do admit that Christians cannot is that we do not know. We do not claim to know anything about God, including facts about his existence, because no human being can know so much. The moment that human beings claim to know what they don’t actually know is the moment they have religious disagreements.

The true essence of Christianity has at its basis a fanatical obsession with the fantasy of purity and perfection. It holds people responsible for the way they are born, and proposes that a just punishment for this condition is eternal torture in the afterlife. It claims that you can wipe your debt clean and join God in Heaven, but only if you believe and accept the torture of Jesus, who was also God himself. Lastly, it demands that you spread this good news and grow in Christ, that you go out and proclaim proudly to the world that Christianity is real and knowable.

I ask you kindly to think about the alternatives: Humility in the face of uncertainty. A demand for sound reasons and evidence over faith. A real commitment to true fairness, justice, and responsibility instead of the moral outrages in the Bible. That, my friends, is the true essence of secular humanism.


A Simple Poem

I’ll promise to blog more once I finish finals, but for now, you’ll have to appreciate this video on Youtube:

Theme Park

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40460324/ns/us_news-life/

So Kentucky is going to build a Noah’s Ark theme park, which will complement the already famous creationist museum in the state. And guess what? I support the idea.

Sure, there are many issues with the state government getting involved, including the extension of tens of millions of dollars of tax breaks to the creationist organization Ark Encounter LLC, and the disregard for any notion of separation of church and state. But these major issues aside, I think the theme park will do more good than harm.

The whole idea of taking a seriously catastrophic event in the literature that is the Old Testament and making a fun, easy time out of it with roller coaster rides and cartoonish Biblical characters is exactly the point. So eager are the Christians to promote this Biblical view that they fail to realize how silly they look, and how silly they make their own stories look.

What was once a bedrock of religious belief–the idea that we were created separately from the animals–is now relegated to what nonbelievers call myth and what thinking believers call “religious metaphor” (interesting since it can be argued that a majority of American Christians don’t believe in evolution). For those that do accept the evidence-based view of life, seeing Animatronic dinosaurs walking with humans is just that–a man-made fantasy made into a spectacular display for children.

When Christians insisted on the veracity of the 7 days of creation, science came along and amazed the world with deep, geologic time. When Christians said that only a purposeful designer could explain great complexity in biological life, Darwin came along and showed the remarkable selections and adaptations in nature, how interconnected we are to every form of life, and how simple were our beginnings. The ideas in the Bible–from the claim that there were literally two teenagers on Earth in a Garden at one time, to the idea of a flood with enough water to cover the world, to the young-earth creationist timeline of a few thousand years–science has pushed these ideas back, back to the world of cartoons, theme parks, and expensive displays for children.

And that’s my point. Religion often spits out completed incoherent and obfuscated statements, but for those testable or verifiable hypotheses that it does offer, science illuminates the path for a true and beautiful understanding of how the natural world works and who we really are.

Build those theme parks. They are a testament to progress.