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Posts Tagged ‘bible’

Poison

I think that to say, as Hitch did, that religion “poisons everything”, is overly harsh. As I’ve talked about, religion can do good things for people – nothing which can only be achieved by religion, certainly, but there are good things to be found in some isolated parts of it.

On the other hand, it poisons a lot. Enough that I’m not sure there’s anything that can be salvaged without removing it from a religious framework entirely.

Forgiveness is a wonderful thing, and in the right hands can even be a rather beautiful part of Christianity. Although there’s a lot of stuff in the “good” “book” (wait, why the second set of sarcastic quotes? nobody’s disputing that the Bible is a book) about vengeance and spite, it eventually gets on to some nice ideas about letting these things go, not holding a grudge, being magnanimous to your enemies and loving them even while there may be conflict.

Another positive and constructive addition to the world is the idea that anyone can repent, and be forgiven, of anything. It might not be as simple as uttering a few prescribed words of apology, but if you really mean it – if you feel sincere remorse, and your promises to be a better person in the future are heartfelt – then you’re never beyond redemption in the eyes of God. You can never go so far wrong that you can’t be brought back to the right side, if you really want it.

Which is all marvellous and commendable. Until religion proceeds to completely fuck up its own ideas.

You can be forgiven all your sins… but you’re still damned if you don’t say enough obsequious things to the right god. No matter how good you are all your life, if you didn’t have enough of the right kind of faith, you’re eternally worse off than someone who acted with none of your virtue but made up for it by seeing the light in their final moments. For all that forgiveness and grace and such are important in Christianity, they’re dwarfed by the overwhelming importance of blind, worshipful obedience to your lord and master.

And they don’t extend more than a moment past death itself, obviously. If you made the wrong choices and want to sincerely repent once the gates of Heaven are already closed to you, sorry pal, you’re outta luck. The forgiveness stand is shut to you. Forever. Shoulda done more sucking up before the deadline.

Oh, and make sure you don’t blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, because that one’s unforgivable. It doesn’t directly harm or impinge on the freedoms of other people in any way, but God’s ego is fragile enough that that’s the one thing which’ll make him irreparably sever all ties. This forgiveness shtick can only go so far, after all. And some things are more important. Things like doing exactly what you’re told at all times.

I’m not saying this is the only interpretation of Christian doctrine, but it’s a popular mainstream one. Many practising Christians do manage to filter the good stuff out pretty effectively, and act with commendable humanistic morals. But religion’s not their ally in those circumstances. It just endorses some nice ideas we could have come up with anyway, and infects it with pernicious tyranny and vengefulness.

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– America’s spending nearly a trillion dollars on Defence this year. And next year. And the next year. And the next…

– If the Bible is so full of divine knowledge, provided by an omnipotent God who knew many things of which his desert nomad scribes couldn’t possibly have been aware, why doesn’t it contain any superior medical advice?

– I agree with just about everything in this Cracked article on interpersonal conflict, except the presumption that such problems are insuperable. If we learn more about ourselves, we can beat all of this.

“We cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition.” Hillary Clinton talking sense on female genital mutilation. Nice to see that particular excuse being prominently dismissed so unambiguously. Would be nicer still if male circumcision / genital mutilation were included also.

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It’s true. There’s been a big misunderstanding. People who believe in the literal truth of the Bible aren’t anti-science at all. That’s just one of those vicious rumours spread by secularists who can’t even really tell you what science is.

The Bible isn’t against “established” science at all. That’s just an example of poor research. Creationists and evolutionists disagree about historical science – beliefs about the past – but not operational science – the kind that’s based on direct observation and has given us the modern technology we all enjoy.

Of course, this is complete tish and fipsy.

But one of the few things Ken Ham at Answers in Genesis understands about science is that it’s a valuable system of knowledge about the world, whose precepts are positive and desirable. He gets why it’s a useful thing to claim to support. Among the many things he doesn’t understand are the processes of observation and hypothesis testing that make up the bulk of important and useful scientific research.

The distinction he imagines between “operational science” and “historical science” is a notable example. He’s implying that only one kind of science is built on “direct observation” – the kind where you can see things as they happen, and whose theories provide a basis for all the technologies and developments we find useful. The other kind of science is the one about which creationists disagree with evolutionists, and whose only purpose is to indoctrinate children with “beliefs” about the past that are specifically constructed to undermine Christianity. This historical science can’t be based on direct observation, because everything it talks about is already in the past.

Here’s why this is crap:

Have you ever reached a solid conclusion about anything that happened in the past, but which you weren’t there to personally witness?

The answer is yes. Yes, you have. And if you give it even a few seconds’ thought, it’s not hard to see how our observations can directly inform us about the past.

Until fairly recently, I would sometimes come home and observe a foul-smelling pile of gloopy disgustment on the living room carpet, and would conclude from this that the cat had thrown up. I didn’t need to see it happen in order to be able to deduce this with considerable certainty. Further, entirely unnecessary research might have informed my idea of past events even further, by estimating a precise time at which he’d ejected his breakfast, or by figuring out exactly what Kirsty had fed him that morning which had disagreed with him, but this never struck me as a fruitful line of endeavour.

Another example: There’s a good chance that your parents have had sex. There’s also a good chance you’ve never directly observed this, and a much greater chance still that you haven’t seen the particular occasion in question. But there are some fairly clear facts about your origins available to you, despite a complete lack of witnesses. (It’s possible you were the result of some artificial fertilisation process, but there are still facts that can be ascertained or ruled out in this case.)

And perhaps the most obvious counterpoint to Ken Ham’s misunderstanding is also the most ironic. No Christian alive today has directly observed the creation of the world, or the life of Jesus. The only “direct observation” powering their belief in these things is that they read the Bible.

Ken Ham uses scare quotes when describing the “knowledge” about the past known as “historical science”, as if to imply that the lack of immediate, contemporaneous observation destroys any hope of acquiring actual knowledge. But this is thoroughly unimaginative. Many events of the past have left their mark on the world today, and sciences such as paleontology, cosmology, and geology are all about tracking down and examining those marks so as to build up a more detailed picture of what sort of Universe might have left them there. They make testable hypotheses about what future observations they expect to make, including suggestions as to what observations would falsify their theory if they ever occurred.

Of course historical scientists use direct observations to infer knowledge about the past. Creationists do a similar thing, but they stick to a single book of data as their only object of direct observation for everything they want to know, and refuse to subject it to any reasonable critical analysis. I’ll take the approach which actually looks at the world and updates its ideas accordingly.

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Or possibly, Rapture II: Die Rapturer.

Anyway. Tomorrow is Harold Camping’s second attempt to correctly predict the end of the world (this year). But it might surprise you to learn that his first attempt was, in fact, entirely successful.

It turns out that May 21st, when everyone was holding their breath and excitedly awaiting the abrupt end of all life on the planet, was actually an administrative deadline. It was the day when God finished dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and filed the paperwork on Earth’s official liquidation. That’s why it looked deceptively like absolutely nothing happened. It was all going perfectly according to plan.

October 21st, though: that’s when the whole physical world “will be annihilated”. For realz. It won’t just be a behind-the-scenes, data-entry armageddon this time around. It’s the real deal. And if you didn’t get your eternal salvation logged and notarised at least five months ago, then boy are you in trouble at the Day of Judgment and Auditing.

Of course, Harold Camping’s not a particularly interesting or original character. Rationalising away your obvious mistakes, and fervently holding beliefs entirely unsupported by facts, aren’t even specific to religious people. And he’s old and tired, and isn’t going to want to make a major adjustment to his worldview at this stage in life, especially if he was loopy enough to become so committed to an obviously barmy idea like this in the first place.

But given how many people gave up their homes and livelihoods last time, on the word of one old man – and how many others make similarly inane sacrifices or acts of devotion based on equally imaginary Biblical prophesy, every day – it’s a pathology that can still be worth examining. It can be good to remind ourselves that this kind of ludicrous behaviour is something that people do. That’s not meant as a point of condemnation or despair of humanity, but an interest in the important subject of understanding ourselves.

Camping and his crowd are kooks, but we shouldn’t let their particular kookiness tempt us to “other” them too completely. They’re experiencing logic failures of the kind to which we’re all susceptible – and which it’s fascinating to attempt to understand, and develop techniques for avoiding.

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”       .”

Gay rights activists are still being quite entertaining with some of their placards.

The title and opening line of this post refer to one of my favourite signs from that compilation, and here’s another one that made me chuckle:

Ridicule is a useful way of approaching arguments like this, particularly when the other side are so vacuously ridiculous. But something about this one made me pause. The boring guy’s sign – the one declaring that “HOMOSEXUALS WILL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD” – actually has a citation.

Okay, admittedly it’s citing the Bible. But a lot of anti-gay zealots don’t even bother to do that with any specificity. They just know that there’s something about no queers in there somewhere, and that’s an important bit, not realising that it’s only really mentioned in the same part which also forbids things like round haircuts, tattoos, and blended fabrics.

But this guy’s not looking back to the ancient Moses-y bits (which may or may not still apply today) to justify his position. He’s got New Testament stuff that blasts the gays as well, and does so unequivocally. No homosexuals inheriting God’s kingdom. Harsh.

Shall we try checking what that bit of the Bible actually says, though? Just for fun? Here’s one modern translation of 1 Corinthians, 6:9-10 (it spills over into the next verse):

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,

Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Which is odd. Because that trustworthy man with the placard up there didn’t mention any of those people at all. I suppose homosexuals could count as a subcategory of some of those groups, but it’s not like God’s going out of his way to condemn them in particular.

It’s almost like placard-man’s letting his own personal values influence his interpretation of his holy text.

And he’s not the only one. There are many things the Bible rails against, at lengths which make its occasional mentions of gay sex seem cursory. But the likes of adulterers often get something of a free pass when it comes to judgment from the conservative Christian crowd.

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So, you know how the Old Testament has a bunch of ridiculous and unrealistic rules in it, about not wearing clothes made from two types of fabric, and stoning disobedient children to death and whatnot? And how Christians sometimes inconsistently explain this away by saying that those laws aren’t for us? How they point out that, while the Bible’s still obviously infallible, it’s just that those were old rules for the ancient nomads of the time, and we don’t have to abide by them any more since Jesus came along and wiped the slate clean?

Is there any reason why the same logic doesn’t also excuse us from the Ten Commandments?

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…and their ideas that some people seem to think they have.

PZ Myers commented recently on an article about religion. Specifically, it was about ways atheists are wrong about religion. He was not impressed.

Here’s my own examination:

5. Liberal and Moderate Religion Justifies Religious Extremism

Like PZ points out, the author of this “myth-busting” article has missed the point of atheists like Sam Harris here. It’s not that liberal religious people are directly supporting the extremists. Rather, the way faith and religious belief are held up as virtues to be respected, with moderate and benevolent examples being cited to support this, bolsters the cultural notion that religion in general should be respected and lauded, which makes it harder to see the obviously abhorrent aspects of fundamentalist religion.

4. Religion Requires a Belief in a Supernatural God

I understand why anti-religious atheists are so reluctant to accept the fact that being religious doesn’t mean belief in the supernatural. The simplistic and convenient myth they’ve constructed would be shattered.

That we’ve constructed?

Dude, you’re welcome to believe in a “healing and renewing power of existence” and call it God if you want, but have you talked to any Christians lately? They’re not going to church to worship a “creative principle in life”. They’ve read their Bible, and they know who God is, and for upwards of 40% of them he’s the conscious and deliberate agent who created humans in their present form in the last 10,000 years or so.

If you’re going to dismiss the whole idea of a personal god as a straw man, you’re either being pitifully disingenuous or you’re profoundly ignorant of what religion actually means to most people. Sure, plenty of people do deviate from that notion into a more vague “spiritual essence” kind of belief, but that’s only one faction. And it’s not like that faction goes uncritiqued by prominent atheists either, or by the godless community as a whole.

3. Religion Causes Bad Behavior

This is a weird one, because he cites Christopher Hitchens saying something very sensible which largely refutes it. As Hitch points out, religion often exacerbates, justifies, coordinates, and excuses many negative things done in its name, even if it can’t be directly blamed for the natural tendencies of our species.

But this doesn’t seem to give a lot of ground to the supposed myth-buster. It still admits that religion is a source of calamitous evil – but it’s also true that religion doesn’t prevent people from doing good things, or always inevitably lead to immorality. I don’t know any atheists who would disagree with this, but it’s still not exactly a recommendation. Religion is unnecessary for people to do good. On the other hand, I’ll let you come up with your own examples of atrocities which would never have been perpetrated were it not for a religious motivation.

2. Atheists are Anti-Religious

This is another one where the author effectively points to a few dried stalks sticking out of somebody’s collar and starts shouting “straw-man!”

A lot of atheists are anti-religious. I know I am. But it’s true that not every atheist is anti-religion, and even if you have no truck with faith systems, being an atheist doesn’t mean that you hold all people with religious beliefs in contempt.

Having said that, this is just stupid:

Atheism is not in any way shape or form related to an opinion about religion.

Really? Not in any way, shape, or form? You can’t see any correlation between atheism – a lack of belief in any god – and opinions on religion – a belief system typically centred around some sort of god? No? Not even a flexible, generally-indicative-if-not-100%-consistent link?

1. All Religions are the Same and are “Equally Crazy”

The author doesn’t link to the Greta Christina article he partially quotes here, but frankly I’m satisfied with her conclusions.

It’s certainly worth recognising the differences between religions, and the ways in which some are more destructive than others. It’s also important to note the psychological difference it makes to have your unsupported beliefs shared by a few billion people, and how this bears on the “crazy” label as applied to any particular person and their ideas.

Believing that you’re Napoleon will likely get you treated for mental health problems. Believing that you regularly commune with a 2000-year-old man-God who holds your eternal salvation in his capricious grasp is practically a requirement to be elected to the highest office of the world’s largest superpower. It’s legitimate to see one crazy idea as more strongly indicative of serious psychological issues than another.

But aside from their popularity, down at the actual level of rationality, all religious beliefs must be just as unfounded in reality as any other. If “faith” is such a virtue, they’re supposed to be believed without recourse to evidence or reason or the things we usual base our sane and sensible beliefs on.

It’s not that people are crazy. But religions themselves? Pretty much.

I suppose it’s possible that the author is right to complain that religions “which aren’t reliant upon any supernatural beliefs, miracles or magical claims” are being unfairly swept up with the others.

The problem there is that I have literally no idea what a religion like that would look like.

Answers on a postcard.

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