Blog Archives

Keep Trying and Never Give Up

If there’s anything that new-age Christians and “liberal” religious people do, it is that they keep trying and they never give up.

I’m writing this somewhat in response to the graduate advisor for the UChicago Secular Student Alliance. He writes a blog called Sleeping in Sundays, and apparently this Sunday, he couldn’t find a better example of ignorance and dishonesty than from a post by Sam Harris, who, after citing a myriad of verses from it, merely concluded that the Quran gives “a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred” and that Muslims who deny this are being dishonest.

Note that this in no way obstructs what Muslims in particular and religious people in general want to do anyways: interpret and metaphorize every verse that conflicts with 21st century morals. There’s no denying that this is what religious people do. But should this impress us?

The usual argument goes like this:

The reason that we have so many crazies (creationists, genital mutilators, suicide bombers, etc.) and backwards societies (theocracies, religious laws, religious education, etc.) is that there are a few fundamentalists. Why do millions and millions of people take to the streets to call for governments to shut down newspapers? Why do religious societies treat women so horribly? Why do we open therapy camps in this country to treat homosexuality? It’s the fundamentalists. They ruin it for everyone else. Simple as that.

How do they ruin it for everyone else? Fundamentalists: they aren’t as fancy and sophisticated as us. They don’t think about the text. They don’t look at context. They don’t look at history. And most important of all: they don’t “struggle” and “wrestle” with the text. They just give up.

The solution? Let’s have the determination to wrestle with the text. When there’s something in the Bible that is outrageous, you must be reading it wrong. When there are entire stories in the Quran that show the overwhelming superiority of Muslims over atheists, you must be ignoring history. Indeed, if you ever ever have an interpretation of a Holy Book that is upsetting, you just aren’t trying hard enough to contextualize it. The solution to all these social ills is to keep trying, to never ever give up.

When countless societies and millions and millions of religious people fail again and again and again at reaching the “correct” interpretation (one in line with secular humanistic values), let’s keep trying again and again and again to fix it, by wrestling with the text.

The Problem with Islam

It is suggested that Muslims and Atheists are the in the same boat. We’re both distrusted minorities in America. So it makes perfect sense that we hold hands and sing together.

I find this to be a very nice trick not particular to Islam but true of religion in general. When it is weak and marginalized, it wants acceptance and pity from everyone else. But in places where it does have real power, it betrays and insults the very humanism that they claim to share with us.

You don’t have to look further than the fact that Muslims too have a poor grasp of scientific reality in their denial of evolution. Statistics like these tell you almost everything you need to know about people who claim to understand divine truth: they don’t have a clue.

We are also sick and tired of the fact that whenever we point out gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Islamists, we are often asked to change the topic to Israeli violations. As much as we want to help with the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, it is inexcusable how the theocratic actions of Gaza’s Islamist rulers are conveniently overlooked.

All of this stems from and results from a group of human beings who don’t just believe in God, but who also think they know and understand the Final Revelation of God, who believe that the angel Gabriel literally communicated through an illiterate man the words of the Koran.

The specific problem with Islam is that a) Muslims are not secular enough b) there aren’t enough people leaving the religion. The latter is true for religion in general, and the former comes from the fact that there aren’t enough people willing to metaphorize and interpret away things that should be outrageous to them.

As much as I dislike religious “intellectuals” who come to us with a smiling face and an intellectually-dishonest, watered-down view of their religion, I view it as a bittersweet sort of secular progress: a testament to the fact that religion has had to give up so much in the light of science, reason, and common sense. I would very much welcome the secularization of Islam, and I believe it is happening in many circles in the Muslim world, especially amongst young people.

And we must address the shameful treatment of apostates, not just in Islamic countries but also in secular ones. It’s utterly unacceptable for a group of people to want to be treated with dignity and respect when the fact is that they don’t allow for that same level of respect in their own communities. You don’t have to look any farther than America to hear about young adults and teenagers wanting to “come out” as atheists, but are unable to do so because they would lose the entire community they grew up in.

The good news is that you can always sense a high level of embarrassment from Muslims about the Islamic penalty for apostasy, which is somewhat inspiring.

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.

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:

How to tell if you aren’t serious about your religion

1. You cannot make a coherent, intelligible argument for your beliefs.

2. You don’t even attempt to do (1).

3. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if that part looks morally upsetting.

4. You are willing to let any part of your holy book become “metaphor” if scientific discoveries contradict it.

5. You believe all that matters in your religion is charity and good works.

6. You think multiple religions can be true.

7. You don’t really believe in the miracles of your religion.

8. You don’t really believe in the afterlife (and how your religion says you can get there).

9. You mainly stay in your religion to reap the benefits of community and the feeling that there is something greater than you.

10. You have serious doubts about what you’ve been told by a religious leader (rabbi, priest, etc.)

11. You prioritize things in your life as if your religion isn’t true.