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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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Dan Savage, not for the first time, is mostly right.

His plea in this video is to those Christians who consider themselves in the liberal and tolerant subset of their religion, who keep reminding him that not all Christians are bigoted homophobes.

The problem, as he points out, is that they issue these reminders by emailing him personally, much more often than they do so by publicly denouncing other bigoted or homophobic Christians. He wants them to do more to join non-religious types in condemning the extremists, and do some good while boosting Christianity’s credibility as a source of tolerance and compassion.

And I think it is worth trying to bring some liberal Christians onto our side here, and to ally with them to some degree in combating values that we both find abhorrent.

(We’re still going to think your faith is ridiculous. Fair warning. But that doesn’t need to be constantly on the table while we’re talking about stuff like gay rights or abortion.)

The thing to remember, though, is that these abhorrent values are unequivocally Christian values. The history of Christian progressivism or fundamentalism has been a complex and bumpy one, but The Good Atheist is right to suggest that “hijacking” is an over-simplified description of what the conservative fundamentalists are up to. Their justification for bigotry comes straight from the same Bible that liberal Christians find their inspiration to be compassionate and charitable.

One thing that’s different, though, is the claim to speak for all Christians. That is something you only here from the right-wing nut side of things, and this is to the liberals’ credit. But Dan’s right to point out that, a lot of the time, the end result amounts to “silent complicity” by the latter group of the former’s prejudices.

A lot of the liberal Christian reaction is limited to emailing complaints to people like Dan Savage for their unfair characterisation of Christianity as being wholly bigoted and homophobic. But members of the bigoted and homophobic wing of the religion are out there debating with him on national TV shows, and this is the kind of thing responsible for defining the public face of Christianity. If that face is one of intolerance and hate, whose problem is that? Who should it fall to to correct the imbalance, to stand up for a compassionate, tolerant, liberal Christianity, to make sure this is a view that’s also heard and appreciated and understood?

Not mine. Not Dan Savage’s. We’re not part of that movement. We can’t be responsible for its PR.

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The Ministry of Truth has a good post up about the way some religious believers champion their holy texts as holding fantastic scientific advancements.

Of course, as they’ll often tell you, God is completely removed from the world of science, and his presence could never be refuted by any such coarsely human thinking. But when science comes along with discoveries that might bolster their ideas, well, that’s another matter.

And while Judaism isn’t particularly known for its kooky fundamentalist extremism – all the Jews I know personally are atheists, in fact – the Rabbi behind Intergalactic Judaism (yes, really) isn’t doing the rest of them any favours.

The thing is, the idea of God imparting scientific knowledge about the world in some divine text, centuries before it was independently reached by lowly mammalian researchers, would be easy to verify and quite profoundly conclusive, if it actually happened. Inserting an unambiguous description of quantum theory into the Bible would surely not have been beyond Yahweh’s powers; people would have pondered the curious words as they were copied faithfully for hundreds of years, until eventually someone noticed the uncanny similarities between these ancient passages and the recent ground-breaking work of Planck or Bohr or Einstein. The astounding insight shown by these millennia-dead nomads would lend some real credence to whatever else they had to say.

But the people with a religious agenda to push tend to be overwhelmingly impressed by the most flimsy of evidence, and don’t seem to recognise that everything in the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, and every other holy book can be quite satisfactorily read as the reasonable understanding of the people who lived at that time.

As Unity wonders:

The Gaon of Vilna wrote in a similar vein, “Everything that was, is and will be is included in the Torah… even the details of every animal, plant and inanimate object, with all their features.”

Really? Every animal, plant and inanimate object?

So where’s the section that deals with dinosaurs?

What about Kangaroos and Koalas – are they in there, and if so, can someone point me to the relevant passage?

And as the Torah is supposed to contain details of every inanimate object, can someone show me the reference to the iPhone?

And the Rabbi’s assertions just get emptier and more futile as it goes on:

When God uttered metaphors referring to light, He knew that light bends in a strong gravitational field and that certain kinds of light can blast through solid rock. When He spoke of the heavens, He knew of the dark matter which permeates them.

Okay, but… isn’t this supposed to be about things God told us hundreds of years ago? The idea of light being bent by gravity would have been truly revolutionary and surprising at the time the Torah was written, but it’s not in there. So now you’re claiming that God didn’t tell us about any of this stuff until we’d figured it out anyway, then claimed he’d obviously known it all along.

Tortured metaphors by which “And then there was light” is meant to be a nuanced recounting of the Big Bang just aren’t convincing. Maybe believers would be advised not to press this angle if they don’t want to look desperate.

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There are some things it’s just not appropriate for a teacher to say in a classroom full of young, impressionable students under his or her care.

Things like: “Kids, don’t do drugs, unless you talk to me first so that I can put you in touch with this guy I know, or you’ll just way get way overcharged.”

Or: “The force exerted by one body on another is proportional to its mass, as I discovered last night when I let Jenkins’s mum go on top.”

Or even: “What do you think the author of these lyrics is trying to convey? What do you think of that message?”

…Hmm.

Yeah, apparently discussing the lyrics of a song and asking your students to write up their thoughts on the matter is something that can get you suspended these days.

If it’s a song about God, at least.

Oh, and if it’s a song with lyrics that suggest a disbelief in a particular God.

If it was a song, or a book, or a poem, that’s all about God, nobody would be noticing this, because it happens all the damn time, and it’s obviously not a problem. The Bible’s a thing well worth studying in schools. It’s hugely important to modern culture and contains a great deal of fascinating literature.

But the one special case of atheism – not being pushed as the truth, not being forced on anyone, not even being asserted in any way, simply appearing in the form of a text to examine – is utterly intolerable to some people.

And it does seem to be only religious people who ever become this intolerant. There’s no other field in which this happens. I’ve never heard of anyone complaining to a school board, or getting a teacher suspended, because their children learned about people who don’t vote Republican, or who don’t like ice cream, or who just couldn’t get into The Wire.

The kid’s mother is quoted as saying:

The whole thing, start to finish, is just wrong on six or seven levels.

Really? Name three.

The press picture of the disgruntled mother and daughter shows the latter holding up her assignment, and you can clearly see the massive letters she used on the first three words of her sentence “I HATE THIS because I believe in God and always will”.

This 12-year-old girl is apparently experiencing genuine fury, simply because she read about someone having a different opinion than her own. She hasn’t suffered any negative effects because of her own opinions, or witnessed any atrocities taking place as a result of some distorted worldview with a twisted alternate morality. She’s just read something by someone who might disagree with her, and she HATES it.

This is a horrible, horrible way to approach the world.

Look, it doesn’t even matter what the belief in question is. If your response when someone asks you to elaborate on your reasons for believing something is to cry and complain about how offensive you find the question, then your upbringing has been profoundly deficient in important ways, and there should be serious questions over whether whoever raised you has done an adequate job of preparing you for the real world.

(h/t Friendly Atheist)

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