Sunday, January 29, 2012

On Criticizing Religion: A Few Thoughts on Blasphemy

"Blasphemy is only our old friend Heresy in disguise, and that, we know, is a priestly manufacture." 

"[I]f the law were really impartial, and punished blasphemy only because it offends the feelings of believers, it ought also to punish such preaching as offends the feelings of unbelievers. All the more earnest and enthusiastic forms of religion are extremely offensive to those who do not believe them. Why should not people who are not Christians be protected against the rough, coarse, ignorant ferocity with which they are often told that they and theirs are on their way to hell-fire for ever and ever?

"Why charge us with hypocrisy when we dare your hate?" --G.W. Foote (Prisoner for Blasphemy)

A couples things caught my attention while reading Foote's account of his imprisonment for crimes of blasphemy. The first is evident in the first quote, where Foote makes the keen observation that blasphemy is only a type of heresy--i.e., a form of thinking differently than orthodox opinion, and that each of these are of priestly manufacture. 

Blasphemy is only a crime to religious people. 
Heresy is only a form of dissent within religion.

I wish more religious people would take time to realize this, especially when they talk about how atheists are so disrespectful of religion. Regardless of whether or not atheists are actually being discourteous toward the religious is besides the point. What needs to be brought to people's attention is that the perceived impiety of the atheist isn't an impiety at all. The atheist simply doesn't believe, and in their faithless existence, find nothing to revere as sacred. With perhaps but for the exception for freedom (including the freedom of thought). 

Recently I was told that my words toward religion are hate filled. Actually, to be precise, I was accused of assaulting religious sensitivities with hate speech. I deny this accusation. 

In fact, the post in question didn't contain any polemic in it. I have written polemics before, so I think I know the difference between a fair religious criticism and an undue attack. Even so, this person asked me why I must attack believers with such unabashed hate?

When I asked to which believers she was referring to, I did not receive reply. Apparently she was confounded in her inability to find even one example of but one person who I might have even made the slightest remark against. But since I was criticizing a religious ideology, not a person, she was at a loss. She just didn't like the fact that I didn't automatically accept a ridiculous religious concept or that I had the audacity to point this out. 

Atheists are not persecuting the religious with hate whenever we talk negatively about religion, rather, it is those who cannot take criticism, and who have deemed their own feelings and opinions as sacred cows, who habitually take offense at the slightest critique of their beliefs. Attacking the belief, in the distorted mind of the religious, is like attacking their person. Yet confusing ideas and identities is a character flaw of religion, which propagates the absurd fallacy that beliefs have feelings.

Only in the bizarre world of religion can attacking a belief be akin to slighting one's feelings and causing them emotional distress. Identities incorporate beliefs, they are not the sum of their total beliefs. Like the comedian Louis C.K. says, he has beliefs, he just chooses not to live by any of them. Beliefs only play a small part in how we view the world and ourselves, but our beliefs do not define us. Beliefs are known to change. It doesn't mean we necessarily do. Although we can change, and often do, but this shouldn't impact our beliefs either, although it could.  

The point is, our beliefs and emotions, although often playing off one another, are not the same things. 

The second thing Foote brought to my attention is, if religion is going to expect nonbelievers to tip-toe around and continuously bite their tongues out of polite courtesy, should not the religious be obliged to follow their own advice? 

The religious would say no, because all religion, don't you know, is wonderful! Again, this according only to the religious. The fact that the religious should so often ignore the opinions of others, other sects, other faiths, unbelievers, nonbelievers, etc. is bad enough. The fact that they expect everyone to accommodate them but not have to return the favor is just downright hypocritical. 

Yet if they ever did own up to their own standard of what constitutes proper speech etiquette (beyond their imagined authority to preside upon the matter), they would find themselves in a world of trouble. 

At once they would realize that their own pernicious doctrines would be downright impossible to whisper in public without sparking outrage. Most of what these religions teach is appalling. 

I dare say that even the story of Jesus Christ, the Christian savior, would have to be shut up and kept out of the public sphere--for it is about the worship of a criminal and a blasphemer. Even if the story contains a few good morals in it, and even if it were in any way true, the problem is that to preach the story of Jesus is to teach the adoration of a radical and a blasphemer. If one is trying to squelch the blasphemous attacks on their faith, the last thing they would want to do is make a rebellious blasphemer their example to venerate.

You can't be against blasphemy and worship a blasphemer. It's just not possible.

Many Christians don't like their kids reading Harry Potter because of the witchcraft and magic the stories contain. I should say, secular families would say the same about the hocus-pocus of the miracles of Moses, the Apostles, and of Jesus himself. We don't want our kids learning that nonsense either. Except we know that they are mere stories. Harry Potter is fine for our kids--because we teach them that it's not real. But because Christians believe in that sort of stuff, for real, it becomes all the more insidious. 

Of course, if we were to call them misguided for entertaining such obviously false beliefs, we would be accused of hate speech. And to remind us of our lowly position, they would, with jeering smiles, wish us to burn in hell. But like Foote, I too wonder, why charge us with hypocrisy when we dare your hate? 

But fair is fair. If Christians don't want to hear all harsh things said against their most cherished beliefs, then they'd be wise to simply keep their religion to themselves and out of the public sphere. If not, well then, they can expect more criticism from those who refuse to respectfully tolerate their absurdities and accommodate their emotional insecurities.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Was America Founded As a Christian Nation: Part 1 The Founding Fathers

It is often preached from the pulpit that America was founded as a "Christian Nation." Perhaps worse than the blatant fallacy behind this is that so many people buy into it. However, to anyone who has spent a little time investigating the matter, the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation is unequivocally false.

It is not really a claim which needs to be refuted since, the simple fact of the matter is, America was the first country founded on the principle that all religions deserved equal respect and none deserved unrequited favor. The Christian doctrine of exclusivity was, to the minds of the founding fathers, incompatible with their loftier principles of a united republic, a United States. The vision they had was one of an autonomous nation where your religion was just one part of what defined you--but at the end of the day--each and every citizen, man or woman, could proudly call themselves free--they could call themselves--Americans.

In the minds of Christians, however, many tend to make-believe an alternative history where America was founded as a Christian nation and the term American is just a synonym for Christian. This could no more be further from the truth than if I were to claim that a centimeter was just a synonym for an inch. Yet such falsehoods are often preached as a matter of fact within the folds of the Christian faith. Sadly, the insistence of these falsehoods as truths has persuaded many to believe it and perpetuated the myth that America is a Christian nation.

In the first part of this series I will investigate a few of the founding fathers in order to follow up on the question whether or not all of the founding fathers were Christian. It stems to reason that if America was truly founded as a "Christian Nation" then all of the founding fathers would ubiquitously subscribe to the religious and moral ideals of Christianity. If we should find exception to this rule, then it would be safe to assume that, contrary to popular opinion, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone on Christian principles. The claim would hence be refuted. 

The freethinker Thomas Paine was one of the primary voices of reason in the early United States. His letters urging Thomas Jefferson to emancipate the slaves in lieu of the booming sugar trade, as well as his writing calling for equal rights for man, something Paine believed to be common sense, would greatly affect the thinking of the founding fathers. Paine's personal calls for the abolition of slavery also greatly impacted Abraham Lincoln who wrote a defense of Paine in 1835 (Lincoln by the way was, as far as anyone knows, a nonbeliever--at least after the death of his son--and claimed he did not belong to any Christian denomination and had to face charges of impious infidelity). 

Spending most of the 1790's in France, Paine was deeply involved in the French Revolution. Upon being arrested and imprisoned, Paine suspected he would be executed as a revolutionary radical, and so was motivated to write his scathing attack on the Christian religion, his last hurrah so to speak. This infamous book is better known as The Age of Reason. In this influential work Paine calls for "free rational inquiry" into all subjects. Paine was a self professed Deist.

Here we shall look at some of Paine's most recognizable quotes and see whether or not he adhered to Christian principles to help us discover whether this founding father was of the mind of someone who would help forge a nation in the name of Christianity.

When asked by Dr. Manley, "Do you believe, or do you wish to believe, that Jesus Christ is the son of God?"

Thomas Paine succinctly replied, "I have no wish to believe on that subject." 
(As quoted by Robert G. Ingersoll in A Vindication of Thomas Paine, 1891) 

Paine once stated that Christianity was merely "atheism dressed up as mannism." This scathing remark was followed by his comment that, "The christian religion is a parody on the worship of the Sun, in which they put a man whom they call Christ, in the place of the Sun, and pay him the same adoration which was originally paid to the Sun."

As for the Holy Scripture, the religious text all Christians revere as divinely inspired truth, Paine had this to say:

"It is from the Bible that man has learned cruelty, rapine, and murder; for the belief of a cruel God makes a cruel man." (A Letter: Being an Answer to a Friend, on the publication of The Age of Reason. The Age of Reason. Boston: Josiah L. Mendum. 1797-05-12. p. 205)

These (above) quotes are telling for several reasons. It proves that Paine did not believe in Jesus Christ as anything other than a mere mortal and that he despised the teaching of the Bible, renouncing it as contemptible, cruel, and vile.

Many of Paine's quotes echo the sentiments of modern day atheist and religious critics. It should come as no surprise, for the shared belief among all freethinkers of any age has been that of free and rational inquiry, which has always, in every age, rubber religion the wrong way.

Paine once prophetically quipped:

"Of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics." (The Age of Reason, Chapter III: Conclusion)

So clearly Paine was nothing like the Christian theists of today. In many instances Thomas Paine sounds more like the atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics of today.

The question becomes--was Thomas Paine likely to have sponsored, let alone allowed, for the United States to be founded as a "Christian Nation" knowing his sheer repugnance toward Christianity? It doesn't seem likely. With respect to Christianity, Paine was an atheist. He did not believe in its god or its message.

Before we proceed with our investigation of the founding fathers, and what they purportedly believed, I wish to share two of my favorite Thomas Paine quotes:

"It is a fraud of the Christian system to call the sciences human invention; it is only the application of them that is human. Every science has for its basis a system of principles as fixed and unalterable as those by which the universe is regulated and governed. Man cannot make principles, he can only discover them." (The Age of Reason Part 1, 1793)

"The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not any thing can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing." 
(The Age of Reason, Chapter III: Conclusion)

[Note: Clearly Paine believed [G]od could be discovered by the tools of science. A deist, in the proper sense, but one who was highly critical of Christianity none-the-less.]

If Thomas Paine, "a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination," was our archetypal religious critic, then Thomas Jefferson was our archetypal freethinker. What was Jefferson's mind when it came to Christianity?

Jefferson writes in his correspondence that his greatest success was in drafting the the Virginia statute, the article which would go on to provide the basis for America's Constitutional division between Church and State. This separation of Church and State is commonly referred to as: "The Wall of Separation between Church and State."

Jefferson, one of the original drafters of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, believed all Religion deserved equal respect, and that to favor one over another was one of the worst forms of bigotry. Needless to say, such an opinion is incompatible with traditional Christian orthodox thinking. 

Additionally, like Paine, Jefferson was also critical of Christianity. Like Paine, he felt that Theology had no place in the University, stating in his 1814 letter to Thomas Cooper about establishing the University of Virginia that "Theology should have no place in our institution." 

It is no secret that Jefferson placed a higher importance on the difference of opinion than on the orthodox conformity to a dogmatically conditioned like-mindedness.

"Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves?" (From Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII)

Still, I have been privileged, if you could call it that, to meet several Christians who have told me to my face that Thomas Jefferson was a Theist in tune with Christian morals and thought. Many people have often used the following quote to prove Jefferson was a Christian:

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he [Jesus] wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other." (Letter to Benjamin Rush, 12 April, 1803)

[Note: technically speaking, by his admission that Jesus was merely human and not divine, Jefferson would be deemed a "Gnostic," which by orthodox Christian standards is viewed as heretical.]

Apparently modern Christians weren't the only one who made the mistake of thinking Thomas Jefferson to be a Christian though. A reporter made the same mistake, to which Jefferson wrote a letter to set the record straight, informing, "Now this supposed that they knew what had been my religion before, taking for it the word of their priests, whom I certainly never made the confidants of my creed. My answer was "I say nothing of my religion." (
Letter to John Adams, 11 January, 1817)

In his letter to Ezra Stile Ely, Jefferson stressed the point, "You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." (25 June 1819)

Those familiar with Jefferson's original writing will be keen to note that in his original writings Jefferson never capitalized the term god. It is always written in the lowercase. Only later did editors correct for this obvious "error" to put the proper reverence back into the term, and so too Jefferson's own writings, once again, wrongly assuming he believed in their concept of god. He did not. Luckily, the original writing, in his own hand, has survived for posterity so as to allow us this invaluable lesson.

Even so, the question becomes, to what is this self proclaimed sect to which Jefferson subscribed? 

Perhaps we find clues in an unsuspecting letter of encouragement to his nephew, Peter Carr, about the young man's investigation into religious faith and of his beliefs. Jefferson writes:

"Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you." (10 August 1787)

In not so many words, Jefferson tells his very own nephew, whom he loved, that it was perfectly alright to become an atheist! This should shed some light on perhaps what Jefferson meant by this unmentioned sect he was so guarded about.

Would any decent God fearing Christian instruct their very own flesh and blood that it was perfectly acceptable to become an atheist? No. This line of reasoning is wholly at odds with the teachings and doctrines of Christianity. 

Like Tom Paine, it seems that Thomas Jefferson would not have been  likely to have sponsored, let alone allowed, for the United States to be founded as a "Christian Nation." Although less critical of Christianity than Paine, it is clear that Jefferson's thinking was in tune with modern religious critics and modern day atheists. Jefferson even went as far as to instruct his own nephew that it would be perfectly acceptable, even virtuous, to find a belief in no god at all--i.e., atheism.

After having given it fair consideration, I am inclined to think Jefferson was not a Christian, since he frequently denied the virgin birth, Jesus's divinity, and all the miracles of the Bible. On top of this, he instructed his nephew that atheism was a perfectly virtuous conclusion, not even a Unitarian would have said this!

As for the public claims that he was a practicing Christian, he denied them all, and simply kept his religious beliefs a closely guarded secret. As I quoted earlier, Jefferson denies being a Christian whenever that assumption was made of him. 

For his denial of the miracles of the Bible, many are found in his his letters to John Adams. Additionally, he addresses the issue in his introduction to his defense of editing the Bible and writing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

We know that Jefferson was against the idea of immaterial and transcendent beings: 

To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise ... without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, August 15, 1820)

Moreover, Jefferson found the idea of a virgin birth archaic and little more than fable and mythology.

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823)

If this wasn't enough to disprove Jefferson was in any way a Christian, Jefferson also denied the Christian notion of the Holy Trinity for logical reasons, 
equating the dogma of the Trinity with polytheism and calling it more unintelligible than paganism.

The metaphysical insanities of Athanasius, of Loyola, and of Calvin, are, to my understanding, mere relapses into polytheism, differing from paganism only by being more unintelligible. The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly, gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. (In his letter to Rev Jared Sparks; November 4, 1820)

Another instance where Jefferson denies Christian theology, comparing it to an absurd myth and calling it "hocus-pocus," is in a bold letter to James Smith.

The hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs. (Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Smith, December 8, 1822)

By Jefferson's own words we learn his exact level of disillusionment with Christianity. Although he may have found a strong sense of Platonism in the many teachings of Jesus, it is clear that Jefferson felt the majority of Christianity was founded upon absurdities and myths.

After closer inspection, we find that not all of the founding fathers subscribed to the religious and moral ideals of Christianity. In fact, we find two prime examples of two founding fathers being vehemently against Christianity, and therefore could not presumably have been part of any agenda to sponsor, let alone create, a "Christian Nation." 

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Women Atheists: An Observation

As it turns out, I know about the same number of female atheists as I do male atheists. Actually, if I stopped to tally up the exact ratio I probably know more female atheists in person than I do their male counterparts. 

Here's the thing though; if the numbers among nonbelievers is relatively equal, or at least it appears to me they may be, then why aren't there more books out there published by female atheists? Why aren't their more mainstream atheist female voices?

Almost all the books with regard to atheism, skepticism, and religious criticism are dominated by the male voice. As far as religious criticism goes, I know of Ayaan Hirsi Ali--and she has to have a fleet of body guards to protect her 24/7 for all the religious zealots out there waiting to lash out in hate and attack her (most of which are no doubt simple minded men). I know of Susan Jacoby and Valerie Tarico, but those are the only recognizable names that come to mind.

[Blag Hag provides a massive list of female atheists which you can be read here. I recognize less than half of the names on the list, but will continue to browse their writing with a keen interest.]

With but for the exception of some prominent scientific minded women like Marry Roach, Lisa Randall, Kayt Sukel, and other women of science, it seems there is a bias in the publishing industry favoring men toward women. I guess this isn't surprising, given the fact that men are still given the larger percentage of higher salaries and better job positions. 

Maybe women are just softer spoken. Perhaps being "outspoken" or having the dire need to be vindicated in "being right" is a male trait. I suspect it may have something to do with the masculine domineering nature to argue--fight it out--and not back down from confrontation which makes men more suitable to publish something controversial. 

On a similar note, it may also be the reason so many religious wars are waged--in the name of male superiority and the innate need to be right. It really does seem to be a man-made invention, all this religious business. Which may play a small part in why primarily men are so apt to criticize it. Although this is just an theory.

Another possible reason we see less female voices is perhaps because many women are involved with closely knitted social groups and networks where other women's opinions provide enough peer pressure to ensure they don't stick their necks out (too much) for fear of being ostracized. 

Maybe it is because men (and not just religious patriarchs but men in all ages) have traditionally been extremely, and overly, cruel to women who do stick their necks out and voice their opinions. 

I don't really know the answer here for why women nonbelievers do not share the same prolific followings as men or publish as frequently, but it certainly seems unfair.

Personally, I am growing rather more interested in the woman perspective and what women have to say. After all, it is she who has the most to gain from the emancipation of religion. In the near future I hope that women atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers start to get appreciated more, and maybe, get a few more book contracts as well.

List of Books Every Freethinker Should Read

Here is a list of books (or works) which I feel every freethinker, skeptic, and person of reason should aspire to read. In no particular order, the books I would most recommend to my fellow skeptics and critical thinkers are:

1. Demon Haunted World (Carl Sagan)

2. Works of Thomas Paine (Thomas Paine)

3. Arrows/Flowers of Freethought (G.W. Foote)

4. Lectures of R.G. Ingersoll (Robert G. Ingersoll)

5. Thoughts (Meditations) of Marcus Aurelius (Marcus Aurelius)

6. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson)

7. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (David Hume)

8. Works of William James (William James)

9. The Critique of Practical Reason (Immanuel Kant)

10. Ideas That Matter (A.C. Grayling)

11. Darwin's Dangerous Idea (Daniel C. Dennett)

12. Self Comes to Mind (Antonio Damasio)

13. Religion Explained (Pascal Boyer)

14. The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell)

15. The Great Code (Northrop Frye)

16. The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins)

17. A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking)

18. The Fabric of the Cosmos (Brian Greene)

19. Deconstructing Jesus (Robert M. Price)

20. On the Decay of the Art of Lying (Mark Twain)

21. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (Immanuel Kant)

22. Dirty Minds (Kayt Sukel)

23. Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle)

24.The Portable Atheist (Christopher Hitchens)

25.The Analects (Confucius)

[P.S. Inevitably someone always asks whether or not I have read all the books I recommend or not. The answer is, yes. I have read all of them. I wouldn't recommend books which I had not read and did not fully know the content of. That said, I did not read these all overnight. The newer ones like Dirty Minds by Kayt Sukel or Self Comes to Mind by Damasio I only read to completion in the past few months. They are both heavy on neuroscience and psychology. Meanwhile, if you follow this blog, you will know I recently, within the last several months, finished the works of G.W. Foote, R.G. Ingersoll, and Marcus Aurelius. The only two authors I haven't read every single work of is William James and Jefferson, but I have read, I'd estimate, eight to ninety percent of what they have written. 

At any rate, I hope this list is of some benefit to those who are having a crisis of faith and want to know where to find ideas they can really latch onto, or those who just want to strengthen their critical thinking skills or understanding of philosophy and science. Happy reading!]

Monday, January 23, 2012

Religion is Neat! Why an Atheist Cares About Religion (So Much)

My last blog entry was an impassioned rant about how religious people view atheists as conceited, and maybe we atheists are, but I showed that we are for good reasons. I should hope.

Now, as this blog is devoted to criticisms of Religion, you all probably are wondering why I even bother? Why attack something which is never going to go away and which, by all estimations, is probably only going to continue to be twisted and corrupted to suit the needs of selfish individuals?

As I pointed out in the last post, I am interested in religion for primarily three reasons.

1. Religion is fascinating. Not only is it psychologically appealing to me, but I love the history which is involved, and I like to think about deep philosophical questions--many of which are asked by religion.
2. I like to know what mistakes people are making--then learn from their mistakes--and avoid making the same ones.
3. I like to know what I am up against. Religion has always bred the worst kinds of tyranny in the world--and so in order to be able to defend ourselves against the corrupted ideologies and beliefs of religion, we must familiarize ourselves with it. Know one's enemy, so to speak.

Maybe people just assume that because I am atheist now, and an advocate for atheism, skeptical inquiry, freethought, and science that I would no longer be interested in religious issues. That's just not true. I have always been very interested in religious matters.

Before I graduated university, I was actually thinking about getting my masters in Theology. When that fizzled out, I thought about switching over to NT Criticism. Of course, I ultimately decided against it. 

During a conversation I had with the Biblical Historian Robert M. Price, he informed me that the end of biblical studies was near. He candidly informed that I probably wouldn't get hired by any Universities even if I had a PhD in religion, and other than being able to write a few popular books on Jesus, or what not, there wasn't really anything in the way of money. Basically, Bob helped me to reconsider. I'm glad that he did.

Since my loss of faith, I have been on the path toward learning a great deal about science. Although religion is a interest of mine, I don't think its anything more than the political activist in me finding an outlet to express myself. I use this blog as a soapbox to get my ideas out there, not only to add to the mainstream opinions, but to help support causes I am passionate about, everything from women's rights to the freedom of speech to banning all forms of censorship.

It just seems that religion, more often than not, gets tied up with all the politics. 

In the future I might like to go back to school. This time I will probably study behavioral psychology or enter into a branch of cutting edge neuroscience, perhaps both. It seems like things are finally settling down with the new job and all, so I have plenty of time to think about it. 

That said, I'll probably keep blogging, and I have numerous books which are nearly ready to be published.

Later this year I intend to publish an anthology called Letting Go of God: Stories and Reflections About the Crisis of Losing Faith.

I have six contributing authors, half of them women, who all talk about their crisis of faith and their coming to terms with their atheism. Two of the contributors are ex-Christian ministers.

So that's something to look forward to.

It seems like I have a lot on the docket. It's a wonder I can even find time to write as much as I do. But if there are large lulls in between blog updates, at least now you'll know the reason why.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

RELIGION IS F@#K3D UP!!! (On Atheist Elitism)

You know the saying, "Hate the sin, but love the sinner," right?

I've never understood the logic behind this. Even when I was a believer I thought it was an illogical statement. What if the "sinner" is a sinner because they are absolutely depraved, evil, SOBs?

It's like saying, "Hate the murder, but love the murderer."

Um... no thank-you.

Here's the thing--it's the act of sin itself that defines the sinner. If they never sinned in the first place then they wouldn't be "sinners." That's why the logic is faulty. But I get what it is trying to say, "Hate the crime, but have compassion for the person."

Even though this is a fine sentiment, I have had it up to my eyeballs with religion and the idiots who practice it. Now don't mistake me, I am not saying that all people who practice religion are idiots. What I am saying is there are countless idiots within the folds of religion.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Superstitious Japan: Yakudoshi

Even as Japan is mainly a secular society which prides itself on its "freethinking," a term most Japanese throw around loosely, over the years I have found that Japan is infested with age old superstitions and ritualized customs which have seeped into mainstream life.

Partly this is due to the fact that the contemporary culture of Japan is fused with a 3,000 year old history. When you have had certain customs or traditions ingraned into society for so long, they aren't thought of as "superstitions" so much as they are traditional Japanese practices which reflect their ancient heritage.

One such tradition is called Yakudoshi.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thought of the Day: Religion and Sports

I have never been that much of a sports aficionado. 

That doesn't mean I don't enjoy sports. I love watching the Olympic games, I will attend an occasional basketball or baseball game live, and I was a fairly competitive athlete in track and field growing up. Sports has always been a part of my life--but it has never developed into an obsession.

The closest athletic activity that is borderline obsessive for me is weight training--but I do that mainly to stay fit--not because I want to become Mr. Universe or anything.

Yet the majority of my friends seem to be completely obsessed with certain sports, like American Football. Now normally I wouldn't think anything of it. While I prefer to crack open a good book and read for hours on end, they flick on the sports channel to watch a game of their favorite team, after all, we all have our hobbies. 

But then I noticed something peculiar. 

Almost all of my extremely religious friends, both men and women, tend to also be the most fanatical about following their favorite sports team with a loyalty that reflects the same zeal they express themselves religiously with. 

I was just wondering if anyone else has noticed this, or if I am just observing a fluke here, or could it possibly be all in my imagination?

Personally, I think religion and sports reflect the same brand of fanaticism. Both require loyalty. Both require a certain level of attendance and show... after all there is no such thing as a closet sports fan... and there is no such thing as a closet religionist.

Meanwhile, believers are expected to make an appearance at church just as sports fans are expected to make an appearance at the playoffs, finals, and big games of the season. In fact, like religion, switching sides is viewed as taboo. Having more than one favorite team is almost as bad--just as most believers look down on a person who can't make up their mind about which religion they belong to. You either know or you don't, and with sports, you either are into it enough to have a favorite team or you're on the fringe.

Like religion, sports has highly specialized rituals, for both players and fans. Like religion, sports asks you to have faith. If the team didn't do so well this season, don't freak out, they promise to do better next season--just have a little bit of faith, won't you?

Both sports and religion give you the same highs and lows. When your team wins, the eruption of pure unadulterated elation is similar to the raised arm praise believers give when they sing an uplifting hymn. When there is a scandal on a sports team, for example a star player getting found out as a sex addict who frequents prostitutes and whores, fans feel betrayed, when there is a scandal in the church, usually for the same reasons, parishioners feel betrayed.

When one's church raises enough funds for the missionary service, or that new parking lot, people feel ecstatic. When one's favorite sports team wins the championship, I imagine they feel likewise.

Is is any wonder that so many sports fans kiss a cross necklace and praise God for their excellent plays? Or ask God to help them win? It seems to me that sports is, in more ways than one, similar to religion.

Now that I think about it, I know hardly any atheists who are avid sports aficionados. I know some who follow sports on television--but only casually--they don't paint their faces. 

What could this mean?

My friend Bud has pointed out to me that he believes that religion and sports both provide a sense of community and kinship which people long for. I would like to add acceptance in general. This psychological trinity of community, kinship, and acceptance seems to be, perhaps, the main motivating factors with regard to why certain people are attracted to sports and religion. Even so, there is still just too much overlap to believe this is all there is. It seems to me that other psychological factors are at play here to. I'd be interested in investigating this issue further (if somebody else hasn't already). 

Am I merely imagining a connection between religion and sports--or is there, perhaps, something more here. What do you think?

Quote of the Day: Bruce Gerencser

"As an atheist, I don’t have a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. When I do bad (I don’t believe in the Christian concept of sin) things there is no God to excuse me so I must own my actions and, if possible, make things right. Granted, my sin list is much smaller now. Once I was set free from the shackles of God’s law, Biblical Law... I was finally able to begin living my life freely. No blood atonement needed. No catchy songs about the blood covering all my transgressions.

"Every day I make decisions in my life that affect how I live my life. Every day I have the choice to live a decent, honorable life. Every day I come up short and it is in those moments that I must say, I am sorry and, if needed, make restitution." --Bruce Gerencser

Bart D. Ehrman Quote Retouched

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Quote of the Day: Bart D. Ehrman

Can Historians Prove That Jesus Was Raised from the Dead?” (I always argue that, no, no one can prove it.) “Are the Gospel Accounts of Jesus Reliable?” (No, not completely.) “Does the Bible Provide an Adequate Answer to Why There Is Suffering?” (No, not really.) --Bart D. Ehrman

Well, that's what the blog would look like if S.O.P.A. ever gets passed. Here's what the blog should look like.

“Can Historians Prove That Jesus Was Raised from the Dead?” (I always argue that, no, no one can prove it.) “Are the Gospel Accounts of Jesus Reliable?” (No, not completely.) “Does the Bible Provide an Adequate Answer to Why There Is Suffering?” (No, not really.) --Bart D. Ehrman

Which do you prefer? Oppose S.O.P.A.--and keep the Internet free!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Is Fine-Tuning Evidence for God? A thought Experiment

Proponents of Intelligent Design (Creationism) often argue that fine tuning, which is a rather inaccurate term for the physical constants of the universe, must have been finely tuned by a "designer" and therefore denote a higher intelligence, or in their minds, [G]od.

But to jump from physical constants to an intelligent creator being (of some sort) is a logic leap which betrays a failure in their line of reasoning. Let me explain by way of a thought experiment.

Let me give three sets of random numbers. Now, for the sake of argument, let's assume that each of these numbers represent the physical constants of three separate universes. Fair enough? Good.

Universe A  568723410048009

Universe B  334223112556778

Universe C  111111111111111

My question is this, which universe is the so called "finely tuned" universe?

You see, fine-tuning isn't something which happens to the universe. The physical constants just are--as such discovering the physical constants is merely an observation which doesn't preclude the conscious act of design. The numbers are just what they are. The fact that we can discover these physical constants and measure them means that whichever set of numbers we observe just happens to be right for life to exist.

In my thought experiment above--all three examples are right for life, because no matter which physical constant you are looking at, the fact that you can observe it means that it allows for the right conditions for life, like you, to evolve.

Yet all of these physical constants were just randomly generated. Not by me, but by an unthinking computer. So there was no sense of "tuning" these numbers to fit my expectations or desires for there to be life. They just popped out of thin air.

Suffice to say, IDers are wrong to assume that fine-tuning is evidence for God, or any transcendent intelligence of any kind. Fine-tuning is not (I repeat... not) evidence for God. The physical constants of the universe are just sets of numbers based on what we measure and observe. We just so happen to inhabit a universe with a set of physical constants which allows for the sustainable existence of life (which is why we can observe it in the first place). It's that simple.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Open Letter to Jeffy-Jeff Bethke

Jefferson Bethke created a nicely executed video on YouTube about how Religion is a man-made perversion which will enslave you, but Jesus will set you free. The video is appropriately titled "Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus."

I have a question for Mr. Bethke.

In your video you say something along the lines that you respect religion, and you believe in the Bible, but that none of this can match the awesomeness of Jesus. Fair enough. But I have a question for you.

My question is this: Are you a Christian?

You see, as I understand it, a Christian is someone who follows the teachings of Christ. The only place we have any information about the first century Palestinian known as Yeshua of Nazareth and his teachings is in the Synoptic gospels of the New Testament. These ancient writings are the only place people can learn about the person named Jesus, what he might have believed, and what he purportedly taught.

These texts are what contain the knowledge, information, and stories about the man millions of Christians worship. Do you not consider yourself a follower of Jesus Christ and aspire to live up to the teachings he set forth?

If so, I think you have a problem.

The religions which spring up from these ancient texts, now canonized, do so out of an attempt to understand the nuances of these deemed sacred scriptures. As someone who has studied the Christian Bible and early Christianity for over three decades now, I think I can firmly surmise the reason for the variance of Christian belief and practice. Many times the scriptural passages are vague, incoherent, esoteric, or just plain confusing. This is why many Christian denominations have varying views on what constitutes a Christian and what rights and rituals better define their faith. There are literally thousands of interpretations to be had, however, nobody (and I repeat... nobody) has the faintest clue as to what the real rhyme or reason behind them might even possibly be.

If you believe you know, if you are *certain your Christianity is the right form and all the other varieties of the faith are heretical, dare I say mistaken, then you have a different problem then I am thinking of.

So are you a person who follows Jesus on the basis that the only means to discover him and what it is he preached is through holy scripture? Because if not... well... I think you might be practicing something other than organized religion... you'd be practicing your own made up religion.

You may say you hate religion but love Jesus, yet that's analogous to saying you hate fruit but love apples. 

I am tempted to ask you one final question, but the rhetorical nature of it is not so flattering, so I'll leave it at this. 

I find you to be a very talented young man--but please, keep studying, keep thinking, and don't become so entrenched in your faith that you forget to ask questions. In other words, don't take your faith for granted. 

Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, yes even the icky religious side of it, are all interwoven inseparable elements of the same whole. It's just how it is. It's how it has always been. And it's how it will always be. The sooner you realize this, the sooner I feel you will come to realize the bigger picture.


The Advocatus Atheist

Friday, January 13, 2012

On Early Christianity and the "Church"

A Christian reader asked a good question.

"Who did Paul address his letters to the Galatians , Corinthians and Thessalonians to, except the Churches in those areas? Also Romans 16:16 all the churches of Christ greet you, Paul's journeys recorder in the book of acts were for the very purpose of Setting up individual autonomous churches in each area he traveled to."

My response is as follows:

Paul refers to the 'church ' as the "body of Christ." The clusters of early Christians that Paul is writing to are not organized institutions as we commonly think of when thinking about modern churches. Paul, as he himself states numerous times in his letters, is working diligently to unify the "body of Christ," that is the early Christian communities he is in contact with, and get them spiritually ready for the Second Coming.

It seems to me a historiographical mistake to confuse our modern concept of the church with what Paul actually meant.

My Christian friend responded:

"For the most part I agree the New Testament church is nothing like the churches we see today, but it is a local congregation or assembly of Christians in a given area, and it had certain rules and regulations to adhere to. It is nothing like today's churches in that it was always only a local congregation ruling itself from the bible, there is no head office no meeting of the elders of several churches to see whats the best plan for the church it was always meant to be just an autonomous assembly of christians serving the lord in a given area, but it was still planned, organised and defined by rules so from that stand point it was an institution."

It seems to me, from what I have read, that there wasn't any such semblance of organization in the groups of Gentile Christians as spoken about in Paul's letters--at least not to the extent you seem to be thinking. 

Again, just to clarify, Paul merely only meant "church" insofar as it represented "the Body of Christ." The terms "church" and "the Body of Christ" are used synonymously throughout the NT for the early Christian community (i.e., those who have come accept Christ as the redeemer).

Perhaps I should explain further why I do not believe there was any evidence of organization, with no actualized rules, and with little in the way of agreed thought or opinion within the early Christian community.

It is well known in the ancient letters outside of the Bible that even 200 years after Christ that most people were still in the dark as to what constituted a Christian or what it is that Christians even believed. For example, in the scrolls of Octavius, written by the third-century author Minucius Felix, there are comments of locals recorded in which people are baffled as to what the practices and rights of Christians really were.

Ancient people were weary of Christians because they frequently met after dark or before dawn, and their meetings changed from home to home each week, and these *secret meetings were exclusive to *only Christians. There were rumors that "Christian love" was a metaphor for incest and sex orgies supposedly held after dark during these highly secretive meetings. One of the popular rumors in the ancient times was that Christians ate babies and drank their infant blood!

People didn't say all this because they hated Christians. They said this because early Christians were so secretive--to the point of being exclusionary. Whereas Pagan religions intermingled, Christians kept to themselves, yet shunned all other religions as false. Most early Christians didn't invite trust or encourage understanding in others. People reacted out of *fear toward Christians--the fear of not knowing.

Christian persecution under Nero was probably largely related to the same effect, since Christians refused to partake in the national religious observances, and kept to themselves, and seemingly worshiped a political radical who was criminally condemned and sentenced to death, Nero was worried that there might be an uprising and rebellion, as Tacitus wrote, and so persecuted Christians as a means to weed out their supposed plot to overthrow the empire. It is even rumored that Nero himself may have started the fires which decimated large parts of Rome in 64 A.D. as a means to drive out the Christian populace for strategic reasons, at least according to Suetonius.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, writing in 180 A.D., went through great pains to alleviate the unjust attacks on Christians--yet he too admitted in his Meditations that he didn't know what Christians actually believed.

My point here is that although it seems there is a minuscule amount of organization within the small assemblies of Christians gathering in the second to fourth centuries--we are still completely in the dark as to their official beliefs and practices as a community--except for the nasty rumor mill which showed a weariness toward Christian custom and behavior which was both highly exclusivist and secretive. 

Suffice to say, this lack of understanding of ancients with regard to Christianity compounds our contemporary lack of understanding for the same time periods. It is all shrouded in mystery, especially since nobody then knew what Christians might have believed--or how they organized themselves--or by what religious observances they gathered in secret to practice--we simply cannot assume they were well organized or structured. 

At best these assemblies, and I use the term loosely, resembled rural peoples gathering for festivities more than actual planned religious meetings. As Christian orthodoxy has always been an ongoing enterprise, it seems that institutional thought couldn't have fully developed before Paul actually had written much of it down, and then it would still be hundreds of years more until orthodox thought and opinion finally congealed, long after the early church fathers and theologians had set down doctrines, regulations, agreed upon creeds, and began to build a hierarchy of institutional observances to better define the Christian faith by. Only after all this was there something for Christians to unite around. Before these events, however, Christianity is a vague hodgepodge of thoughts and opinions--almost none of them agreeing.  

Now let's go back earlier, to the first century, when Paul lived and wrote.

What stands out to me, especially in Paul's letters to the "churches," was that he was addressing the social problems of individuals. In one Christian community (which is all Paul's term of "church" signifies) a guy is accused of incest, of sleeping with his step-mother, while in another an unspecified person is still practicing pagan rights alongside their newly established Christian ones. Within the all of the "churches" there is insensible bickering of what Christian beliefs, practices, and spiritual rights should be, which ones are to be deemed correct and which are not, and the only thing which is clear (at least to me) is that nobody (and I mean nobody at all!) had a firm idea of what Christianity meant.

Except for, perhaps, Paul--who was always certain. He was on a mission to right every wrong. Which is why he wrote these letters to his "churches." He wanted them to conform to his standard of Christian values, practices, and beliefs. 

[I should note here that most of the Christian communities Paul wrote to were unaware of anything he said in the other letters which that he sent to the other "churches." That is, the Galatians didn't know what it is Paul wrote to the Corinthians, or vice versa. In other words, one community of Christians had no way to compare their notes with another community of Christians and discover the correct teachings (according to Paul). But this just goes to show that Paul wasn't interested in establishing a core set of tenets for everyone to abide by, but that he was trying to prepare each individual community for the Second Coming, and get them spiritually conditioned for "The Day of the Lord."]

Early Christianity is an enigma. Nobody really knows how it formed with any certainty. All we can do is create historical reconstructions which best account for all the available data. Even so, it is important that we remember Paul's version of Christianity is just the one that ultimately won out. But in his day, there were numerous strands of Christian thought all volleying for the dominant position. There was the Peter/James group, there were Gnostics, there were Simonians, there were Docetists, and many more varieties of Christianity just in Paul's day alone!

So all we really know about the early "church" was that there wasn't one.

Christians met in secretive locations--a practice which lasted up to three hundred years, they frequently changed locations, they had no leadership--which is why Paul kept writing to them demanding that they get their houses in order--so to speak, they had no unity of thought, they bickered constantly, and so on and so forth. I find it hard to see how any of this signifies an institution of cohesion of thought and opinion. Indeed, I don't believe we see strands of orthodoxy emerge until the mid to late second century--so there would be nothing for the early Christians to unify around--therefore there truly could be no Christian institutions until much later.

Meanwhile, Paul tried to wrangle in the groups he was primarily responsible for creating in the first place--his gentile Christian mission--and his letters show his struggle to unify them and prepare them spiritually for the end times. But I see no semblance of institutional thought--at least not until a time when there is a more rigid form of orthodoxy to adhere to, which begins to emerge primarily in the latter half of the second century. 

Without any infrastructure or organization within the early Christian community, however, it's difficult for me to see precisely what Paul's use of "church" is meant to signify--other than to say it represented the loosely assembled, yet highly disorganized, Christian communities he wrote to. 

I hope that helps to answer your initial question. Thanks for the great conversation starter!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Christianity is a Failure & Jesus Ain't Coming Back--Period

The last time anyone saw Jesus alive.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 it is obvious that Paul felt he himself would be alive when Jesus returned to establish God's kingdom on Earth. Needless to say, this didn't happen. 

In Corinthians 15:20 Paul calls Jesus the "first fruits of the resurrection." This agricultural metaphor is an illusion to the reaping of the harvest--typically done they day after the burgeoning of a crop. A farmer doesn't wait twenty or two-thousand years to take in the harvest, after all. The language employed by Paul makes it abundantly clear, that in his mind, the resurrection was imminent. Soon the dead would be raised for Judgement day.

Needless to say, this didn't happen either.

The very formation of the Christian Church, in retrospect, can be seen as the great failure of Christianity.

If Jesus and Paul had been right about the apocalypse--i.e., the end times--then the judgement would have already come to pass. This is the reason neither Jesus nor Paul spoke about *organizing a socialized institutions such as a church. If everything was going to end the very next day, or next week, there was no need for it. 

This was Jesus's reasoning for calling all of his followers to give up their possessions and follow him (Matt. 19:21). The same for Paul, who preached that marriage was pretty much a futile endeavor and that  

28 ...[T]hose who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. 29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:28-31; emphasis mine)

After all, if everything was coming fast to an end what would the purpose of marriage be? For Paul the there was no purpose--his advice, simply put, don't bother with marriage. Best get busy preparing one's spiritual self for the day of judgement.

Later Christians apparently realized that the failure of God's kingdom to be actualized, along with the failed prophecies about the end times, and the failure of judgement day to happen at all became a huge theological pain in the neck for early Christians.

Thus we see attempts to recify the situation. In 2 Peter 3:8 the author writes, "But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day."

Phew! That solves things.

Except for one small problem, modern Biblical scholars have found that 2 Peter is a pseudepigraphical work. That is, it is a book written by someone pretending to be Peter--who actually lived in a much later time. Nobody knows when exactly. But what scholars do know is that the time is late enough that the anticipated return of Christ, along with the day of judgement, still hadn't come to pass and was a horrible embarrassment for the growing number of Christians who were keen to defend the validity of their faith. 

Predictably, the anxiety of early Christians needed to be appeased and the author of 2 Peter (whoever he was) was doing his best to sooth their fears and concerns by inventing the erroneous claim that for God 1 day is like a 1,000 years, therefore, it makes sense that even if the second coming hasn't yet occurred--not to fret--it is only a matter of time before it does.

But the author of 2 Peter's message directly conflicts with what Paul and even Jesus Christ taught (*gasp! Yet another Bible contradiction). A thousand years later is clearly not within the lifetime of Christ or his Apostles. 

"I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Matt. 24:34)

Well, Christianity has had 2,000 years of the utmost excellent sort of failure one could possibly imagine. Both Jesus and Paul were wrong and failed to be correct in their beliefs. What they claimed would happen in their very own lifetimes--never happened. Latter day Christians who attempted to correct for these failures ended up not doing much better, since as we 21st century denizens well know, their reformulated predictions and theories also failed. 

But the Christian church remains--hanging on throughout time--like a pesky thorn painfully reminding us that everything Christianity has promised, or will ever promise, never ever has come true--and probably never will.  

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist