Monthly Archives: February 2011

Zionism, Atheism, and the Struggle to Live Purposefully

Yesterday, I watched this excellent documentary by the BBC about ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers who dedicate their lives to repopulating parts of the West Bank.

It’s a very vivid portrayal of the tension and intense hatred on both sides, and I very much recommend that you watch the whole thing.

What really stood out for me was the conversation between journalist Theroux and a young man [YM] near the end of the documentary:

[YM]: This is our land. You can come and kill us and do whatever you want. We are going to stay here. We are going to die for this country.

[Theroux]: And kill for this country?

[YM]: If necessary, yes. I don’t know if mentally I can do it, but by the law of God, you are supposed to do it. You told me you’re an atheist. Do you like it?

[Theroux]: A lot. It’s very comforting. It’s very comforting to know that there’s no one up there looking after me.

[YM]: It’s comfortable… sure. I think it’s a–you forgive me already right?–a stupid way of life. What are you here for? You think you came from a monkey? Everyone likes to think there’s a big thing behind us, not that we are here just to work, get money, feed our children, and die, and that’s it. You are supposed to be a good man. You are supposed to work for God, not just for yourself.

Of course, the ironic thing is that we’d probably all be better off if we only worked, made money, fed our children, and die. We’d be better off if we didn’t have a great voice in our head calling for us to steal property and kill those in our way. And if you really are going to claim that you, another evolved mammal, actually can comprehend the commands of God, perhaps you should keep it private (or at least announce it with a great deal of embarrassment).

But as long as Israel and Palestine remain racially divided entities founded on the premise of different promises from God(s), there will never be a harmonious society that fully respects human rights.

Therefore, the inspirational thought(s) of the day will be reflections on the purpose of life by none other than Mr. Hitchens:

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If atheists wrote religious Facebook status updates…

If atheists wrote religious Facebook status updates, it would be something like this:

Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett. They are the Enlightened Truth, the Path Away from Darkness! In times of struggle, let me hear your wise words that proclaim the GLORY of science. So let us praise Reason! Hear its love and its infinite and perfect wisdom. Forgive us, Science and Logic, for although we are nothing compared to your holy name, we will study your Word and live a life of Righteous anti-godliness.

In the name of Darwin’s ghost, Amen.

And then my friends would comment:

Amen!

Hallelujah.

Thank you for your comforting words. They mean a lot to me.

Reason is truth! Yes!

I would get approximately 20 likes.

Life Looks for Life

Amazing, but there’s a graph at the end of this video that breaks my heart.

Is Civil Discourse Possible in a Christian Society?

A very intriguing person calls into the Atheist Experience. Matt Dillahunty says some things that I think are worth more than a moment’s reflection.

 

Freedom of A Secularist

Today I attended a presentation named “Freedom of a Christian” featuring Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and liberal Christian apologist.

Actually to call her an apologist for her religion is a bit insulting. Yes, she says the same things most liberal apologists repeat over and over again, namely that people have been imperfect and that religion has given people a lot to be hostile about. And of course, it is quite hard to see through her layers and layers of metaphor, especially when we consider that she teaches the Bible as literature at a secular university and has to admit to her students that she “comes from a very certain cultural lens”.

Yet, in the middle of all this trite regurgitation of stock apologia comes a very profound thesis that is worth examining. Her project, it seems to me, is quite the opposite of what I see from the growing secular movement, for while we are generally concerned with bringing down idols that humans have erected, Robinson, on the other hand, wants to resurrect figures of the historical past, and defend and rebuild their reputations.

At stake is John Calvin and his influence on early New England (Puritan) culture, for which she argues that modernity has closed the door on this period and buried it under a cartoonish version of Puritanism that involves witch-burning and theocratic shackles. Robinson argues that it is exactly because of the law of Moses (who is apparently also misunderstood) that New Englanders were able to enact humane laws, or at least more humane than the fashionable ones in Europe.

These humane laws include the restriction that you could not hit anyone physically more than 40 times (which is humane when compared to many crueler standards in England). More importantly, she argues, Mosaic law very severely curtailed the number of crimes punishable by death, for which there were hundreds in Europe. Of course, she had to admit that this was not perfect, that things like blasphemy were still punishable by death.

I have absolutely no response to the argument that New England might have been a bastion of tolerance compared to its European counterparts, especially since I have very limited expertise in this area of history and since I’m quite positive that her knowledge about this greatly exceeds mine. What I will not accept, however, is the implication here that the roots of tolerance actually came from a divine source, directly inspired by the word of God.

What Robinson wants us to believe, in other words, is that a perfect supernatural being spoke directly to Moses, who in turn codified holy law into the Bible that included the death penalty for people who thought and spoke differently. Why Christian Europe even became theocratic is not at all mentioned, but apparently it might have all happened so that some settlers on the other end of the globe could erect a more ideal version of Christian society and implement a reinterpreted Mosaic law. And that’s supposed to be a great leap of human progress.

I didn’t have to hear her continuing talking about how there probably were witches burned in the South (making Salem “not-so-bad” after all) to realize that she doesn’t notice the collapsing logic of her own argument. The problem I have with ideas of progress like this is that seemingly progressive religious ideas are doomed to fail. Muslims will readily point to quotes in the Koran where women have some rights, but taken a whole, the supposed final revelation from the prophet Muhammed draws out a clear spectrum for the rights of women. , No matter how we try to interpret away passages we don’t like, nowhere in this spectrum lies the possibility of a full and equal role for women in society and in the family.

Nowhere in Biblical law, in Biblical inspiration, in Christian versions of freedom and tolerance will we see a full acceptance of things like nonbelief and homosexuality, for it is difficult enough for Christians to even catch up with the normal, secular sphere in the embrace of ideas like evolutionary change.

But I did enjoy the presentation, mostly because it wasn’t all nebulous liberal-Christian mush and offered a clear thesis that I could write about.

The inspiration of the day comes from an article by Paula Kirby from The Washington Post.

And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god.

True freedom requires us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of religion as well as from the tyranny of brutal earthly regimes. True freedom involves the freedom to think, to explore, to grow; the freedom to pursue knowledge and learning, wherever they lead; the freedom to be different, not to conform; freedom from bigotry; freedom from ignorance; freedom to love and to express that love as we choose; freedom to be ourselves, to accept ourselves, warts and all, and to accept others on the same terms; freedom to choose our own meaning and purpose in life, and to make our own decisions on the basis of those free choices; freedom to make mistakes; freedom to change our mind; freedom from fear, especially from phoney fears invented by those whose only aim is to control us in word, thought and deed.

That, my friends, is the freedom of a secularist.

Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, we decorate cake

By “we” I mean Ben Zalisko from the UChicago Secular Student Alliance who created this masterpiece of delicious art:

Why Darwin Matters

I finally got around to writing this:

Creationists do annoy us very much. But the idea of evolution by natural selection is not just incompatible with the idea of creation, it also is positively and absolutely irreconcilable with the Bible. I’m not impressed at all, therefore, when Christians tell me they believe in both theories.

It often surprises me that, after nearly a century of insisting that evolution is an evil, ridiculous idea, Christians are finally starting to catch up with the reality that has been described by ordinary, secular science for over a century. Now they insist that evolution and Christian theology make a harmonious whole.

Think of all that had to be established before Darwin could even conceive of his ideas. He not only had to fight against those who insisted in design and special creation and a young earth, but he also faced resistance in areas that we take for granted: extinction, for example, was widely seen as a dangerous, irreligious idea. After all, why would a perfect God (before the arrival of sinful man) create creatures that simply died out?

It’s a very fascinating question that relates to our contemporary understanding of the history of life on Earth. We now know that over 99.8% of the species that have ever lived are no longer in existence. This may or may not be problematic for the Christian apologist; I don’t know. But I do know they are more than willing to turn pretty much any concrete thing into a metaphor.

But what I’m arguing for is much more fundamental, and it strikes at the heart of Christianity, and it’s frankly what many of Darwin’s contemporaries realized: that his ideas didn’t just naturalize creation, they refuted Biblical theology. That’s the legacy of Darwin I want to explain, and that’s why Darwin matters.

1. The Problem of the Creation of the Soul

For Christians, there must have been a point when humans became human, when souls were breathed into our material bodies. But when exactly did those descendants of our ape-ancestor have souls, and when did they not, if there was only gradual evolutionary change and no single moment when we could say we were “human”?

This is very important because the Bible says that humans are supposed to be distinct from animals; we are made in God’s image and have dominion over other life forms on Earth. Evolution, on the other hand, says this distinction is vague and unclear, lies on a spectrum that barely changes over millions of years.

2. Hominids and the Soul

We also know that at least three different human-like species lived with us in our evolutionary past. Some of these creatures buried the dead, were able to make tools and glue, and probably had language and complex thoughts. Not only are these fascinating cousins of ours non-present in the Bible, but we are forced to speculate if they had souls (if they could go to Heaven).

3. Adam and Eve, Another Metaphor

It’s a very sensitive idea that few Christian apologists are willing to answer. Were there two people on Earth at some point in time, or is this whole thing another metaphor/myth? After all, evolution doesn’t completely rule Adam and Eve out, but the probability that the homo sapien population dwindled to only two (one male, one female) is practically zero, and even if it did, it would be incompatible with the idea that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth.

4. The Evolutionary Timeline

The Bible’s history of life on Earth is a very peculiar one because it misses out on the overwhelming majority of the history of “creation”. The bulk of evolutionary history is of micro-organisms, which are so incredibly important to biology and medicine, and whose existence is not even mentioned in the Bible.

5. The Human Timeline

We know that our species has been around for over two hundred thousand years (human-like organisms have been around for much much longer). What the Bible implies is that through all of this time, through all this extinction and struggle for survival, through all the multiple human-like species that lived and died out, through all of their religions and false gods, Heaven didn’t do anything about this condition of human affairs for hundreds of thousands of year until a couple thousand years ago. Only then did it talk to prophets privately on mountain-tops and send a messenger to illiterate parts of the Middle East. And that’s the salvation of mankind. And what if you use your brain that evolution has given you to disbelieve Christian claims? You’ll be sorry after you die.

Well, believe what you will. I hope you had a happy Darwin Day yesterday.

Inspiration:

A grand and marvelous explanation…

It is less than a week to Darwin’s Birthday (February 12), and I wanted to write about the significance of Darwin’s ideas on secular thought. Too bad I have three midterms and a paper due this week. For now, you will just have to enjoy a clip from this documentary:

You may also think about coming to my school’s Darwin Day celebration.

Humbled by God, or Not.

As you all know, this a great blog with no secular bias whatsoever, which is exactly why I want to show you the religious perspective on inspiration. My last post demonstrated the incomprehensible size of stars and how they should humble us, but this is how Christians view the exact same thing:

So he gets a nice sinking feel, huh? And all our false feelings of importance? They come from sin, right?

Remember that this is coming from a religion that for centuries insisted that we really were at the center of the Universe, that we were really the special creation of God completely separate from animals, that everything was tweaked just right for human life.

But let us forget about that. The guy is a Christian, and he claims to be humbled by the awesome size of stars in the Universe.

He’s so incredibly humbled that he, while holding the Bible in one hand, can probably answer the following:

1. Whether God certainly exists or not.

2. How many Gods there are.

3. Whether this God cares about what happens in some negligible nanoscopic alley in the Universe.

4. Which God, out of the millions that humans have believed, is the one true God.

5. Whether or not God really chose to save us by sending Jesus to some backwards part of the Middle East.

6. Whether there is an afterlife or not.

7. What the afterlife consists of, and what thoughts and beliefs (or rituals) you must have to get there.

8. Who you may have sex with.

9. What divine instructions God gave thousands of years ago.

10. Which parts of the Bible are literally true, and which ones are metaphor.

11. Whether God really answers prayers.


As a human being, I maintain that anyone who even remotely claims that they have the answers to some of the questions above are, at the least, extremely suspect and, at worst, complete frauds. The obvious fact, of course, is that anyone who claims to know with some clarity all or most of the answers above are claiming things that human beings cannot possibly know.

This is exactly why I don’t want to see my President having breakfast with people who make a living out of making the claims above. I especially don’t want to hear him saying how faith is about being humble and understanding the limits of your own knowledge.

The problem with faith is that it makes people so incredibly, unbelievably, astronomically, and galatically arrogant, while at the same time making them not realize it.

The inspiration of the day, therefore, comes from Carl Sagan:

We live on a hunk of rock and metal that circles a humdrum star that is one of 400 billion other stars that make up the Milky Way Galaxy which is one of billions of other galaxies which make up a universe which may be one of a very large number, perhaps an infinite number, of other universes. That is a perspective on human life and our culture that is well worth pondering.

More stars than grains of sand

Enough with the silly solar system models in elementary school. This is a glimpse of what the Universe really looks like.