Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Revelation du jour

Posted by midiguru on May 9, 2015

There is a God. And God does respond to prayers.

God is a giant armadillo named Murgatroyd. And by “giant” I do mean giant. Murgatroyd is about 75 feet from stem to stern, not including His tail. He lives in an air-conditioned barn near Peoria, Illinois, and seldom leaves, except once a year, when he hovers over the Superbowl like an invisible blimp. But He is able to respond to prayers without leaving the comfort of his barn, so His reclusiveness is not an issue.

However, you may want to know that Murgatroyd speaks (and understands) only Latvian. Prayers in Latvian will be answered promptly (“promptly” meaning, sometime within the next five or ten thousand years). Prayers not in Latvian will not attract Murgatroyd’s attention.

But there’s some good news. Murgatroyd’s only begotten daughter, Betty, is bilingual in Latvian and English. You can pray to Betty, and she will cheerfully pass your requests on to Murgatroyd. Murgatroyd is not really too fond of Betty, so the results of her intercession cannot be guaranteed — but for most worshipers, praying to Betty will be easier than learning Latvian.

Betty is quite hard of hearing, unfortunately. Shouting loudly to her is recommended. And doing this outdoors will be most efficacious, as Betty is claustrophobic. She seldom ventures indoors.

Betty is very fond of yellow rubber rain boots. (Vinyl boots are acceptable.) If you stand in the street wearing yellow rubber rain boots and shout loudly to Betty, your prayers to Murgatroyd will have the best possible chance of being granted. Either that, or you could learn Latvian.

There has been a schism, regrettably, within the Church of Murgatroyd & His Divine Daughter Betty. The M&Mites hold that Betty is favorably impressed by an offering of burning M&Ms, whose smoke She inhales. Now, you may think it would be difficult to burn a bowl of M&Ms, but you’ll find that dousing them with gasoline or lighter fluid works very well.

The M&Mites are opposed by the Anti-Scissorites, who hold that touching or owning scissors, or even witnessing the use of scissors by a heretic, will infallibly incur the wrath of Betty. The wrath of Betty is not a pleasant prospect. It involves being forced to listen to the entire song catalog of the Eagles, played on a ukulele by a drunken auto mechanic.

On the whole, avoiding scissors seems like a very good idea. Either that, or you could always learn Latvian.

Posted in religion | Tagged: | 5 Comments »

WDJS

Posted by midiguru on April 29, 2015

What did Jesus say? After uploading my previous blog entry, I decided I was curious about that. People who say they’re following the teachings of Jesus usually have in mind the first four books of the New Testament. But there are other sources.

A trove of manuscripts was uncovered in Egypt, not too many years ago — parchment books dating back to the 4th century. Until they were found, we knew little about the Gnostics, other than from the diatribes the orthodox church fathers wrote denouncing what they felt were the gnostic heresies. These recovered documents included a number of stories about Jesus and his apostles that differ, sometimes sharply, from what was previously known.

A scholar named Elaine Pagels wrote a wonderful book called The Gnostic Gospels about these newly discovered documents, and about what we can learn from them. I had read the book 25 or 30 years ago, but didn’t remember much. This week I’m reading it again.

The most important point, I think, is that the early church fathers were solidifying a rigid hierarchical and authoritarian social structure (bishops at the top, then priests, then deacons, then the ordinary worshipers). The gnostics were much more egalitarian in outlook. The gnostics allowed women to serve as priests, something the Catholic Church is still having fits about, 1,600 years later.

The gnostics were creative. They were interested in discovering spiritual truths for themselves. The orthodox church, on the contrary, was bound and determined that there was only one source of truth — a bishop who had received the mandate passed down directly from one of the apostles.

If anything, this view of the historical situation solidifies my contempt for organized Christianity, quite apart from any specific questions of doctrine.

Another thing that I’m reminded of by reading about these early struggles over the meanings of various events (such as the crucifixion and the resurrection) is that none of the people involved had the least idea about the nature of the world they were living in. Science simply didn’t exist. They certainly knew that it was unilkely for someone who had been crucified and was dead to come back to life — but they had no reason at all to assume that it could never happen. People whom they were inclined to trust told them it had happened; therefore, it had happened.

Only during the past 200 years have we been in any position to deconstruct the entire foundation of religious doctrine, using the tools of science. You might think this would be a great relief to everybody, but no. People care about their religion, whatever it happens to be.

And that’s the third point: memes. A meme is an idea that survives or evaporates in what we might call a virtual ecosystem, the system of human brains and human culture. Memes that resonate well with human instinct tend to spread. They lock in with our deepest feelings and are difficult to eradicate. An idea that seems grotesque to us (say, the divinity of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) is unlikely to propagate through the meme-sphere.

Religion is deeply entrenched because its characteristics have been finely honed through thousands of years to resonate with humans’ instinctive perceptions and needs. Trying to debate the truth or falsity of religious doctrines is very nearly useless. Memes are stubborn. You might as well try to cure cancer with aspirin tablets as try to explain scientific truth to someone whose mind has been taken over by religious memes.

The Gnostic Gospels illustrates this process in a clear and convincing way because the only thing the early Christians could do was ask themselves which set of ideas resonated best with their unconscious and intuitive sense of what was good or right. They were in no position whatever to do any reality-testing — it was all free-floating memes.

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Ruminations on Religion

Posted by midiguru on April 27, 2015

Today I got into a low-key wrangle with a woman on Facebook who feels that her moderate, enlightened version of Christianity is superior to the version espoused by the right-wing zealots who are currently spewing their toxic garbage across our national discourse. She said she simply follows the teachings of Jesus, which she finds not very ambiguous.

I asked her whether she opposes divorce; Jesus was quite specific about that, if the Bible is to be believed. Of course, the Bible is a farrago of fantasy, we all understand that — but if she’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, she has to use it.

She wouldn’t answer the question. But she got me curious, so I hauled out the King James Version and had a look at Matthew. The sayings of Jesus turn out to be more peculiar than I remembered — and a lot harder to use as teachings or moral precepts, I’d say. Here’s Matthew 8:21-22: “And another of his disciples said unto him, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. But Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.”

Okay, so one of Jesus’s teachings was that corpses were to be allowed to rot unburied. Have I got that right?

Earlier in the same chapter, a centurion comes to Jesus requesting that Jesus heal his servant, who is “grievously tormented” by the palsy. But the centurion doesn’t want Jesus to be seen entering his house! “For I am a man under authority,” he explains. He wants Jesus to heal the servant remotely. Jesus does so — but what’s remarkable about this incident is that Jesus goes out of his way to praise the centurion’s great faith. “Verily I say unto you,” he says to his disciples, “I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”

The centurion is worried about losing his job if he’s known to be hanging out with Jesus, and Jesus praises his faith. That’s enough to set my head spinning. Jesus is unabashedly praising fear and hypocrisy. He’s praising a man for not wanting to lose his job.

And yet he also says, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” Yes, that does seem to be fairly unambiguous, though it’s precisely the opposite of what he praised the centurion for.

Can we safely assume that the woman who is following the teachings of Jesus has no interest in dieting and nutrition? Can we safely assume that she doesn’t bother to wash her clothes or make sure that her socks match?

Or, as is much more likely, shall we assume that she is picking and choosing among the teachings of Jesus, embracing the teachings that she likes and ignoring those that would be embarrassing, inconvenient, or dangerous?

I’m not too concerned, at the moment, about hypocrisy. That’s not what I’m driving at. What I want to suggest is that not even the most scrupulously religious can dodge personal responsibility for their moral and behavioral choices. If you try to follow every single thing in your favorite holy book, of course you’ll go mad, because holy books are full of contradictions. But even if you did try to do that, it would still be your personal choice. You can’t evade responsibility for your actions by trying to blame it on Jesus. In practice, people do pick and choose the verses they will admire and embrace. And that’s as it should be.

But if you do it that way, and if you have even a scrap of honesty, you really have to admit to yourself that the Bible is not a reliable guide to anything. The only reliable guide to morality or life’s difficult choices is your own personal sense of right and wrong. Jesus got nothin’ to do with it.

Posted in random musings, religion | Leave a Comment »

“The New Atheists”

Posted by midiguru on April 26, 2015

One occasionally sees references to “the new atheists.” It’s not a term of flattery or respect. The people who use this phrase seem, almost without exception, to be trying to discredit the writings of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and perhaps one or two others.

Their attempts are usually irritating. Bad reasoning, ad hominem attacks, and sweeping ignorant generalizations are not in short supply. Tonight, while doing the dishes, I think I figured out what the problem is.

At a fundamental level, atheism is one thing, and criticism of organized religion is a different thing. One can be scathingly critical of organized religion (some of it or perhaps all of it) without being an atheist. Conversely, one can be an atheist purely as a personal matter, while possibly retaining great respect for religious values, religious communities, and religious symbols.

It seems to me that people who use the phrase “the new atheists” are not, for the most part, upset with the atheistic reasoning (call it a credo if you like; I won’t) of atheists new or old. Lack of belief in a deity is not the issue. The issue is that these people think you shouldn’t criticize organized religion. They think religion is entitled to be accorded some sort of unique respect — that religion is deserving of a special social standing that lifts it into a region where criticism ought not to penetrate. What they’re disturbed about is that Dawkins, Hitchens, and their allies. not content merely to profess or promote atheism, also insist on leveling devastating and well-reasoned critiques at the institutions of organized religion. And from time to time at the mental processes of religious believers.

This is, I suppose, a new trend. There have always been atheists. We have a few writings from pre-Christian Rome that suggest that at least a few upper-class Romans were atheists. It seems quite likely that several of the Founding Fathers of the United States were also atheists, though they cloaked their opinions very carefully in their writings in order to avoid disturbing the status quo. But until quite recently, religion was sacrosanct. Protestants could criticize Catholics in vicious terms; Catholics could retaliate by lambasting Protestants. But very few people were willing to stand up and say out loud, “Hey, the whole thing is a crock of shit.”

It should have happened 2,000 years ago. But until the invention of the telescope and the microscope, until the theory of evolution was developed, the criticism of religion could only be of specific practices that might be considered objectionable. The foundations of the whole enterprise could only be revealed as deeply and horribly flawed when science had progressed to the point at which religious belief of any sort was no longer intellectually defensible. Those who are still trying to defend it have to resort to more and more arcane and convoluted pretexts.

As far as I’m concerned, religion — any religion, or the whole enchilada wrapped up in greasy paper to go — is entitled to no more respect than the Shriners, the Odd Fellows, Monsanto, or the NRA. All of them are human institutions, and all can be, and indeed must be, criticized using the same intellectual tools and the same criteria. For starters, do the leaders of these institutions tell lies? I don’t know whether the Odd Fellows tell lies, but I’m damn sure bald-faced lies are being told by most Christian ministers, most Sundays.

I think it may have been in Dawkins’s The God Delusion that he, or somebody, remarks that there is really no basis on which Oxford or any other university could grant a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That pretty much sums it up.

Posted in religion, society & culture | Tagged: | 8 Comments »

A Small Distinction

Posted by midiguru on February 5, 2015

A friend of mine, in taking me to task for my outspoken contempt for religion, has voiced the odd idea that the good parts of religion are real religion, while the bad parts are a “misuse” of religion.

It’s perfectly true that there are good parts of religion. Charitable giving, consolation in grief, the encouragement to cultivate some sort of mystic consciousness, even the beautiful ceremonies and the great songs — that stuff is all good.

But there are other parts. Burning people at the stake. Genital mutilation. The amassing of obscene wealth. Ostracism of and cruelty toward those who are different.

My friend maintains that those things aren’t true religion. But she’s wrong. She’s wrong for this precise reason: She has no right to define what religion is and what it isn’t. Nor do I. Religious people get to define that for themselves. If they say they’re murdering people for having the wrong religion (or for having no religion), that’s a true expression of their religion, because they say it is.

You don’t get to cherry-pick the good, nice parts and claim those parts are the essence of religion while the rest is human frailty or something of the sort, because you have no logical basis on which to do so. Religion is whatever the religious people say it is. If women’s health clinics are being closed through the industrious efforts of religious people (and they are), and if women are dying as a result (and they are), religion has murdered those women.

The awkward thing about religion, for apologists, is that it’s not fact-based. It’s fantasy-based. That being the case, it’s not possible to make a logical case that activities A and B are true expressions of religion while activities C and D, even though they’re being engaged in by religious people for self-professed religious reasons, aren’t true expressions. There are no facts upon which to use logic. Sorry — there just aren’t.

Posted in religion | 7 Comments »

Religion and Banjo Playing

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2015

I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.

Posted in religion, society & culture | 13 Comments »

Words with Baggage

Posted by midiguru on October 9, 2014

I have a problem with the word “spirituality.” If you spend much time hanging around a 12-Step program you’ll hear people say, “It’s not a religious program, it’s a spiritual program.” In fact, there are strong reasons for contending that it’s a religious program, but that’s an argument for another time. The question for today is, what do people mean when they say “spiritual”?

We should always be wary of people who attach new, esoteric definitions to common words. (Scientology does that quite a lot.) The word “spiritual” has several common meanings. A spiritual is a type of traditional choral music often heard in the African-American community. The lyrics of a spiritual are typically in praise of someone named Jesus. That’s not a meaning that resonates with me. A hundred years ago, a spiritualist or spirit medium was a con artist who claimed to be able to communicate with the ghosts of the dead. That’s not a meaning I care to embrace either. And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which is one of the three aspects of the Catholic God. Oh, dear.

A slightly better meaning is that someone who is spiritual is uninterested in “worldly” things, a category that would presumably include riches, fame, and 2-pound boxes of Swiss chocolate. But this meaning is slippery. Those whose lives are devoted to the study of mathematics are hardly engaged in a worldly pursuit, yet few of us would say they’re spiritual. The same could be said of philologists and grammarians. If you study ancient Greek and Latin, will people say you’re spiritual? It seems unlikely.

No, when the word is used in this seemingly generic way, it seems to refer to people whose lives are devoted to “higher” things, whatever those are. One would be inclined, for instance, to say that a scholar who studies the Old Testament (and who believes it has some sort of special relevance in human affairs) is “spiritual,” while the mathematician is not.

We might also say that someone who feeds stray puppies is “spiritual,” while a person who kicks stray puppies is not. But does the word just mean “inclined to be kind”? I’m not sure, but I suspect this usage embraces, at least potentially, the idea that the person who feeds the puppies is motivated not by mere kindness but by some sort of awareness, however tenuous, of a “higher plane of existence.”

I don’t feel comfortable with that usage either.

The best I can do is to replace the word “spiritual” with the words “life-enhancing.” If I perform that little mental trick, I can hope to deal with it when people use the word. But why should I have to lie to myself like this? Why can’t people just say “life-enhancing” if that’s what they mean?

Posted in religion | 5 Comments »

Ignorance and Bliss

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

I get a little testy when someone accuses fervent atheists of being “as bad as religious people.” It’s not the atheists who are trying to shut down abortion providers. It’s not the atheists who are trying to keep gays from marrying. It’s not the atheists who want children brought up in ignorance of science. It’s … oh, wait, who is doing that? Right. It’s the religious people.

Is it the religiously devout who can’t be elected to public office in the U.S. owing to bias against them by atheists? Why, no! It’s the other way around. Atheists can’t be elected to office due to voter bias, yet the most rabid, confused fundamentalists can march off to Congress and freely promulgate their bizarre views, to widespread public approbation.

The accusation that atheists are “as bad as” religious extremists popped up today in a conversation on Facebook, and I fired back. The conversation was dominated, it appeared, by agnostics. Their idea seems to be that we’re supposed to be polite to religious people, because who really knows?

Well, indeed — who really knows? None of us knows. For all we know, the entire universe could have been created ten minutes ago by a gang of giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts and Groucho Marx mustaches. I mean, really. It could have been. That hypothesis cannot be disproven.

It’s just not very likely. And from all the evidence that science has been able to gather over the past 300 years, the hypothesis that there is such a thing as “God” is no more likely than the hypothesis about giant baboons wearing Bermuda shorts. The scientific investigation of the God question was conducted, at least for the first 200 years, not by atheists but by scientists who quite definitely believed in God and wanted to find evidence of the existence of God and the soul. Try as they might, they couldn’t find any evidence.

That being the case, to cling to the notion that “nobody knows — there could be a God” is just intellectual ineptitude wearing a fancy suit. Agnosticism is a refusal to look at the complete failure of scientific investigations of the question. It’s an embrace of ignorance.

I am impatient with people who embrace ignorance.

The “God” hypothesis has been used for millenia as an explanation of anything that people didn’t know how to explain in any other way. Love, seeds sprouting, being healed of disease, the movement of the planets in the sky — it was all God’s handiwork, right? But as science has learned about the real physical nature of these phenomena, there has been less and less need for the God hypothesis. The God of liberal religions today, some sort of vague cloud of universal love, is no more than a faint shadow of the God whose supposed acts were trumpeted by the old-time religion.

Liberal religious groups have retreated for a very good reason: The “God” hypothesis doesn’t actually explain anything. It’s a useless and waterlogged piece of intellectual flotsam.

It seems to me that self-proclaimed agnostics want atheists to sit down and be quiet because they want everybody to be polite. Especially, we should be polite to religious people, because, you know, they might turn out to be right after all. Or at least in the name of tolerance.

Given the amount of mischief (a euphemism for bloodshed) perpetrated by religious people over the past few thousand years, I feel disinclined to remain polite. And as a member of a minority that is widely misunderstood and discriminated against in various subtle ways, I can’t help feeling that asking me to tolerate religious people and their views is being a bit one-sided. We know perfectly well that a broad swath of conservative religious people do not and will never tolerate atheists. Every time we open our mouths to express our views, we’re a threat to them. It’s not just that they don’t understand us, or that they fear we’ll force them to question their beliefs. They think we’re evil. A source of social degeneracy and blah blah blah.

Should we be asked to tolerate people who think we’re evil?

You can read a good summary of the atheist point of view here. This article is a little repetitive; reasons 1, 4, 7, and 10 of the ten reasons are a lot alike. And we could debate about reason 9, because the more glaring awfulness of many sects with long histories has in fact been moderated over the centuries. Nonetheless, anyone who thinks agnosticism makes sense should give it a read.

What I think people mean by the “just as bad” comment is not that atheists’ views of social policy are bad, but rather that atheists sometimes express their views of religious questions in terms that are just as uncompromising. Atheists can be stubborn and confrontational.

But why shouldn’t we be? We’re right. We have logic and science on our side. The religious believers have only tradition (poorly understood or selectively cherry-picked), emotion (treacherously fickle), assorted legends (worthless), and the herd mentality (never reliable).

You hand me an empty bushel basket. You tell me, “There might be a diamond in the basket.” I look in the basket. There’s no diamond. I tell you, “There’s no diamond in there.” You tell me, “No, there might be a diamond. Really. Maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.”

If that’s the kind of intellectual tap-dance you enjoy, congratulations. You’re an agnostic.

Posted in religion | 2 Comments »

One Nation Under What?

Posted by midiguru on September 9, 2014

Sometimes I get a little steamed up. This morning on Facebook, one of my friends posted an item about the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. This led immediately to a diatribe from one of his Christian friends (whose name I will omit, because I’m a considerate person):

“I visited this site and I read all the comments regarding the pledge. You know full well that this nation was founded on religious principles…..specifically the principles of Jesus Christ. To deny that is foolish. All one has to do is read the writings of the founders to know their heart. I was deeply offended by the incredibly noxious comments and vicious screed directed at those of us that are followers of Christ. And all this from a crowd that preaches tolerance. I simply can’t believe that you could align yourself with something this low.”

Another friend of my friend responded to this ridiculous statement as follows:

“With all due respect, you do know that Thomas Jefferson had his own version of the Gospels. He took out all the voodoo and the Hocus Pocus and left the direct words of Christ. This country was not found on religious principles and most decidedly NOT on the principles of Jesus Christ. That is why the Constitution has a provision that mandates that NO RELIGIOUS TEST be required for ANY Constitutionally mandated position in our government.”

I then added my two cents’ worth:

“As a matter of historical fact, you’re wrong. The founding fathers were very careful to keep religion OUT of political life. The fact that you fail to understand this shows very clearly exactly WHY they chose that path. It should also suggest to you why people get a little testy on the subject. To be specific, the Christians in this country fucking don’t get it.”

The Christian guy then fired back with this:

“First of all, my comments were directed to [the original poster], not any of you. Your revisionist view of history is typical atheistic garbage. Jim, I don’t fail to understand anything. I have devoted most of my sixty years to intensely studying the Bible and history and all I can say is that you and your ilk have succeeded in turning this once great nation into a third world rat hole. By the way, don’t use that kind of offensive language when you address me.”

Of course, there are numerous deep-seated problems with this, most remarkably the bizarre notion that the United States would be a wonderful nation today if it weren’t for the atheists. Also, I find myself wondering whether this fellow has ever done a point-by-point comparison between, say, a nice clean suburb in Southern California and an actual “third world rat hole,” such as, oh, maybe Somalia or the slums of Bangladesh. Probably not. The supposed horrifying collapse of the United States is not entirely in his mind — things have gotten pretty bad around here, though they weren’t exactly great in the 1950s, were they? There’s also a whiff of racism about his phrase, isn’t there? Just a little whiff.

In any case, I lost it, okay? Here’s how I responded:

“So you’re an intolerant asshole and an ignorant schmuck. I might have expected better of a so-called ‘Christian,’ but I don’t, usually. And fuck yourself in the ass if you don’t like my language, you piece of dogshit.”

I’m afraid I’m just not very tolerant of religious people anymore. Religious patriots are worse. Ignorant religious patriots … well, that’s a redundant phrase. All religious patriots are ignorant, by definition.

I do think it’s charming that this guy is posting on Facebook and thinking he has the right or can expect to control other people’s use of words like “fuck.” That level of cluelessness is a highlight of the conversation.

But the underlying problem is not that the guy is ignorant. We’re all ignorant about various things. The underlying problem, and the reason I get so tweaked about his brand of idiocy, is this: His religion forces him to be ignorant. His religion is one-size-fits-all. There is no room in his world view for divergent opinions. As far as he can see, Christianity is the One Holy Truth, and because he loves his country (a separate failing, and a topic for another time) he cannot conceive that his country was founded on other than Christian principles.

The logic (if you want to call it that) seems to be this: All good things come from God. Therefore, anything that is not good is due to people’s failure to worship God.

Never mind that the God of the Old Testament was, according to the documentary evidence, a sadistic motherfucker. Pay no attention to the deity behind the curtain.

Last night I was part of a very interesting discussion about tolerance. It seems to me that tolerance is a two-way street. Religious people tend to expect (if not demand) tolerance for their views — but many of them fail to return the favor. Their dogmatic belief is that they’re right — and if they’re right, atheists must be wrong. The stakes being (in their pathetic little minds) very high, they have little hesitation in striding out forthrightly to smite and bring low the evils of atheism. Of course they’re quite willing to love you as an individual … but only after you become a convert to their brand of hoo-hah, whatever it happens to be.

Last night somebody said, “Tolerance is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t mean you have to put up with assholes.” If a religious person demands that you be respectful of their religion, while they’re refusing to be respectful of your secular values as an atheist, and then they accuse you of being intolerant because you ask them to hop off of their high horse and come down to earth — no. Fuck that.

Posted in politics, religion | 4 Comments »

Reality Check

Posted by midiguru on July 16, 2014

The local public library has hundreds of books on religion, but only a handful on atheism. Yesterday I checked out The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg. At first glance, it seems sensible enough, but problems soon develop.

Rosenberg is absolutely right to insist that science provides the only usable source of information with which to address life’s important questions. He gives himself a quick pop quiz, and gets the answers right: Is there a God? No. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there free will? Not a chance!

He’s also correct, I think, in noting that a big part of the appeal of religion is that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to relate to stories. Religion is a huge repository of stories — charming, inspiring, or scary. Science is hard for people to grasp because it isn’t a collection of stories.

Where he runs off the rails is in his discussion of science. He doesn’t get his facts straight. Instead, he starts telling stories. Okay, there are no people in the stories, but they’re fables nonetheless.

He accepts the hypothesis of a multiverse as fact, when in fact it’s no more than a vague guess, unsupported by a shred of evidence. He asserts that the entire physical universe is made up of fermions and bosons, even though physicists have no idea what sort(s) of particles dark matter (if it even exists) may be composed of. He dismisses the anthropic principle without troubling to explain that there is a weak anthropic principle (which is quite sensible) and a strong anthropic principle (which is silly).

Or consider this passage: “The physicist’s picture of the universe is the one on which all bets should be placed. The bets are not only that it’s correct as far as it goes, but that it will eventually go all the way and be completely correct. When finished, it will leave nothing out as unexplained from physical first principles (besides those principles themselves).” [Italics in original.] This reminds me of the apocryphal comment, made toward the end of the 19th century, that the Patent Office might as well be closed, because all of the devices that could be invented had already been invented.

As any reader of Scientific American knows, the frontiers of physics are very fuzzy indeed. The essential problem — and it’s not just a practical problem, though it is that; it’s essential — is that the things physicists would like to study are so very small or so very distant in space and time that we’re reaching the limits beyond which it will be impossible to gather raw observational data.

And while we’re on the subject, where exactly did those first principles in physics come from? This is not a trivial question. As Einstein once remarked (or so I’ve read), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Why exactly should all electrons behave identically? And isn’t that question one that physics should be prepared to investigate?

No, Mr. Rosenberg, physics will never be complete.

His discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is conventional, but flawed. (I’m sure this same flaw is found in physics textbooks. You don’t have to thank me.) Here is how Rosenberg puts it: “The second law tells us that in any region of space left to itself, differences in the amount of energy will very, very, very probably even out until the whole region is uniform in energy.” A few pages later, he says the second law “requires only the extremely probable increase in entropy from moment to moment in a closed system — the whole universe or some isolated part of it.”

There are two related problems with this formulation.

First, there is no such thing as a closed system. You can build an iron box if you like, and pack it full of gas molecules, and observe how they mix. That’s the sort of “closed” system theorists like to talk about. But every second, millions of neutrinos will be zipping straight through that box, as if the iron walls weren’t even there. The iron walls themselves, not having been cooled to absolute zero, will be radiating heat into the interior of the box while simultaneously absorbing heat from whatever is outside the box.

Yes, the Second Law will describe what’s going to happen in the box, unless some outside source of energy intervenes. If an improbable distribution of gas molecules shows up, you look for the outside source of energy. That’s very sensible, but let’s not talk about closed systems, shall we? There are always outside forces acting on a “closed” system.

Second, and more important, we don’t know that the universe as a whole is a closed system. It may be infinite in extent. The part we can observe appears to be finite, though extremely large — but there is an edge past which we can’t see. We don’t know what may be out there past the furthest objects we can observe. If the universe is infinite, then the Second Law becomes meaningless as applied to the universe as a whole, because somewhere out there, there will always be regions of improbably high energy density.

And that’s just the chapter on physics. Having barely started on the chapter about biology and evolution, I stumbled on this howler: “Darwin estimated that at least 300 million years had been required for natural selection to provide the level of adaptation we see around us. (He was off by three orders of magnitude….)” Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg. The difference between 300 million and 3 billion (the actual time span) is only one order of magnitude, not three.

With friends like this, atheism may not need enemies.

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