Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Q12010 - The Song So Far

My favorite song so far this year has been "Dolores in a Shoestand" by the remarkable and sorely missed Esbjorn Svensson Trio. The trio's ability to control the tension in the song is fantastic.


If Atheism Is False, Then...

Occasionally, someone will ask me what I would do if Atheism were untrue. Frequently, what the questioner really wants to know is why I don't just play it safe (a la Pascal's Wager) by maintaining a position that asserts theistic belief but also recognizes important issues that would lead anyone to have questions or doubts. To the questioner, these issues usually include the problem of evil, the contradiction of science and religion, and the lack of direct and verifiable evidence of God's existence.

Setting aside Pascal's Wager, however, I think the original question is very interesting on its own and deserves attention. If Atheism is untrue, then theism is true. And then...

**Insert Television Dream Transition Waves Here**

(1) There exist in our world one or more gods, immortal beings able to control and transcend the laws of physics, and able to understand the thoughts of mortal beings.

(2) One or more gods is responsible for beginning of the universe, for everything in it, and for everything that happens in it.

(3) Other supernatural beings exist, although they may not be fully divine. Angels, demons, cherubs, and so on, all inhabit the world. Often, they are invisible. Ghosts, too, probably exist.

(4) Other realms exist, such as heaven and hell, and they lie beyond space and time. They exist invisible and undetectable in our world.

(5) People and perhaps other beings all contain an invisible and undetectable soul, which existed before life and exists after death.

(6) After spending a relatively very short time on Earth, every single immortal soul becomes judged by one or more gods for the actions of the human who housed that soul. The results of that judgment determine the soul's permanent residence in either heaven or hell.

(7) Human knowledge of time, space, history, medicine, law and life all become invalid because our perspective is wrong and our data leads to false conclusions.

(8) One or more human religious traditions describes the revelation of the divine to some or all humanity.

(9) Human activity and energy should be spent on an unceasing quest to establish which religious traditions, if any, express the true relationship of humanity to the deity or deities. If we people don't know how to relate properly to the divine, then our souls will perish and be punished for ever. So we need to know the right religions: we should study them all carefully and have tools to distinguish more accurate from less accurate traditions.

(10) The vast majority of humanity has already found their souls condemned eternally. Now, just stop and think for a moment about the number of human beings who have lived on this Earth and died over the past thousands and millions of years. We're talking billions upon billions of people, are we not? Reflect on what percentage of these people are now suffering in hell and what percent are playing badminton in heaven if Atheism is untrue.

I imagine that we could easily expand this list, some of the items above could be explained more or tweaked in this way or that, but the bottom line is this:

If Atheism is false and God exists (or gods do), then our world is actually nothing at all like we experience it in our daily lives or like we know it through our sciences.

Forget Pascal's Wager! People should be more concerned about the Common Sense Wager: If Atheism is false, then you (yes, you) are very probably going to spend eternity in hell!

I note with some sense of irony that #9 makes a very good reason to develop science and scientific methods. Because of scientific methods and processes we seem able to learn about the universe. We seem able to increase our knowledge in it and of it. We seem able to devise ways to overcome our natural limitations (physical, intellectual, rational) and arrive at better models of the truth of things. For these reasons, I have confidence that the Atheist conclusion is correct and the theist conclusion is incorrect. Furthermore, I see theist beliefs -- all of them -- becoming harder and harder to justify.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Looking Back at One of My Theist Posts

Here's something I wrote almost five years ago. My, how things have changed.


April 2005 -- In every Passover Seder, my family has debated that part of the service concerning the four different types of child. This is where we consider how to teach the meaning of Passover and its Seder to each type: wise, wicked, simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.

Each type is identified by the manner in which the child queries the leader about the Seder's meaning. The wise child asks, "What is the meaning of the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d?" In contrast, the wicked child asks, "What is the meaning of this service to you?" Because the wicked child distances himself from the service, the leader's reply excludes him: "Because of what G-d did for me, in taking me out of Egypt."

My two brothers, it seems to me, dislike that one of the sons is called “wicked.” To get even a little more particular about it, they feel that the so-called “wicked child” is unfairly labeled and challenge whether he has truly done anything to merit such a strong condemnation as “wicked.” Again as it seems to me, they view him as a potentially spiritual individual whose inquiry from a place of independent thought brings down a harsh anti-intellectualism upon him.

There is much to admire in my brothers’ defense of the wicked child. If I have characterized their sentiments correctly, I share many impulses and thoughts with them. For example, we all understand that it is a disturbing and terrible thing to call a child “wicked.” At one time or another, all children behave wickedly, but this does not make them through-and-through wicked. It is hard to imagine any child as an essentially wicked being – as if a child were born evil, independent of his education and environment. In fact, this is such a strain on the imagination that I think my brothers and I agree that no child is born evil or wicked.

However, my brothers and I begin to part ways sharply when we consider a second point, whether the so-called wicked son’s behavior warrants being identified as wicked. What is the behavior that offends? It is a question, and it is question phrased in a way that communicates condescension and trivialization. In cruder, more colloquial terms, the child has stood up and asked the room, “What the hell are you all doing?” The form of the question implies the child’s ideas that the Seder ritual is beneath him and silly.

Is this behavior wicked? Certainly. To disdain and disrespect people, and to make them and their practices out to be inferior – these are evil acts because they attempt verbally to destroy the Seder, its origins, the current and past events that have made it possible, and the spirit of its participants.
2010 Note: This is an area where my viewpoint has probably changed. I now think I overstated the case. The wicked child's behavior may be impolite, but "wicked" is an inappropriate label for it.

However, if in his question the child has performed an act of profound wickedness, can it be said that the child himself is wicked? After all, we might resent the behavior but still be able to excuse the child. “He was just trying to be funny,” we might reason. “It was just an error of judgment,” we might conclude.

But at this point it’s critical to remember that “the wicked child” is not an actual child and does not refer to a particular person. The wicked child represents a personality type, just as the wise child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask are personality types identified by the sages. At different points in a life, in different contexts, each one of us approaches a situation from the standpoint of wisdom, wickedness, simplemindedness or dumb silence. From earliest childhood and into adulthood, we hope to establish wisdom's standpoint as our default approach to the Seder, and also to Torah, Judaism, and living generally.
2010 Note: I still agree in principle with this. I might observe now that the wise child, as a personality type, need not be a believer. One can be an Atheist and ask the same questions. As an Atheist, I can still maintain a deep bond with the people at the Seder table and with all the Seder represents, even if I don't believe as the other people do and even if I have sharp disagreements with some or all of what the Seder represents.

This is partly why it is misguided to defend the wicked child. To advocate for the wicked child is not to protect a vulnerable innocent, it is to justify wicked deeds themselves. It is to legitimize and intellectually permit behavior that degrades other people and defiles their customs. It is to rationalize destructive actions and to refuse to take any kind of stand against them or their perpetrators.

So also is it misguided to suggest that the rebuke of the wicked child’s question intends to quell dissent and suppress a healthy community dialogue on different spiritual points of view. The response to the wicked child’s question makes explicit just what he had implied: the child implicitly removes himself from the Seder in the question, and the child is explicitly removed from the Seder in the response. The obvious intent in responding this way is to help the child realize on his own that the Seder does apply to him, but the application is not a mere given. It is fulfilled by one’s meeting the obligation to study the Seder and its "testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

What about multiple, different, and even conflicting spiritual views? If the wicked child or his question represents some alternative spiritual view, I do not see it. It certainly is not expressed in any positive sense. But make no mistake, the Seder – and Judaism too, I believe – fully supports inquiries, disagreements, and theories on "the testimonies, statutes and judgments commanded by G-d."

I fear that ideas that this is not so are becoming irrevocably entrenched in my brothers' hearts and minds. What's more, I detect a cancer in their offered and implied positions on the wicked child, a serious philosophical and spiritual issue that is turning them against Jewish observances, history and texts.
2010 Note: Although I am now certainly "against" much of religious observances, history and texts, I think some clarification is in order. I'm against the observance of religion as anything more than personal gratification and communal bonding. Observe if it makes you feel OK, but it doesn't make you or anyone "holy." It doesn't "sanctify" anyone or anything. It doesn't alter history or rehabilitate the nastier and inconsistent parts of the sacred texts. Having been raised in a family circumstance that made the Seder very enjoyable, I have no intention of giving it up. I will not pretend, however, that my Seder has any sort of real (in the sense of "reality") spiritual dimension.

I fear also that this stance is becoming more pervasive in Jewish families across America, and I believe that it is not a good thing. If my fears are true and this cancer is real, Seders of the future will be conducted without decent and intelligent Jews, those who passed over Judaism without recognizing that it always already explored and expressed their humanist ideals.

My brothers have a wisdom that makes them deserving of an appropriate reply to their questions. Have I given this reply? I don't know, but perhaps this, my expression of what I desire to understand, will help all of us have a new Seder next year. The Seder itself can be seen as wisdom asking a question. My family, and perhaps many Jewish families in America, can benefit from examining how we have responded to this question.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Do Celebrate Passover

The flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt into the desert, as reported in the Torah, probably did not happen. At least, there is no archaeological or historical evidence that allows us to claim with confidence that the extraordinary events relayed in Exodus actually occurred. And even if one or more elements in the report are factual, I highly doubt that God played any part in the events -- this because I reject the hypothesis of God's existence.

Nevertheless, I will sit down with my family this year and conduct the seder. We'll set up the table as instructed by the haggadah, and we'll perform the rituals associated with Passover observance. I fully intend not to eat unleavened bread during the Passover time.

It's been hinted to me that as an Atheist I should not celebrate Passover or observe any of its rituals. Yet, I enjoy the seder and the week-long diet of matzah. Why deny myself of this? Why deprive my children of an annual marker of the heritage into which we were born? The seder is but dinner theater and only serves as the backdrop for storytelling, supper, games and song. The matzah restriction is but a diet, same as any other diet I might try for a week.

Holding seder and eating matzah do not constitute agreement with any truth claims made by the Bible or Jewish theology. I can celebrate this discrimination in and through the seder.

And irreverence? Of course, there must be irreverence.

Happy Pesach!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Repent While We Can!

[Not that there's anything wrong with that]

I am happy to have come across this gem from a person, Nick Duliakas, who clearly is not a fan of Richard Dawkins.
After the manner of "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick. 1591–1674 (Gather ye rosebuds while ye may)

With slight corrections ~

Gather, ye atheists, while ye may,
Do your heckling and high-fiving,
Ye may be laughing at us to-day,
But, to-morrow ye'll be crying.

The glorious Light of Heaven, the Son,
Tis soon that He'll be coming,
And days as ye know it will be done,
Into His arms ye should be running.

The age is best which will be last,
And that is fast approaching,
Put your unbelief in the past,
Upon His grace, ye've been encroaching.

Be not fools, but redeem the time,
Away from the pit of hell, He'll carry,
Into a place beautiful and devine,
Where ye may forever tarry.

March 21, 2010 ~ Composed and written by Nick Duliakas. If used, please give proper acknowledgment. May not be used for profit without permission. (
How wonderful that Herrick's lusty lyric should be made to scold the bad, bad atheist who must repent or face the eternal fires and torments of the big realm of h-h-h-hell. Unfortunately, Nick has mangled Herrick's iambs -- I am a fan of versification, after all -- but let's focus on content.

Stanza 1 - Apparently we atheists are troublesome rabble who heckle the faithful (presumably the Christian faithful, even though Dawkins begins his piece describing a dialogue with a rabbi). I particularly like the image of atheists high-fiving. I can only wish the poet had been able to find a rhyme for "chest bumping." But the point is that we atheists will get our comeuppance for being so disagreeable. Question for Nick: Is the idea appealing to you that you will be proved right and that we unbelievers will roast in humiliation? Is this part of the attraction to the position you take?

Stanza 2 - Jesus, differentiated from God, is said to be returning to earth to open a can of whoop-ass. Things will apparently be different when this happens. Again, we atheists and non-Christians are told that we should have been seeking to worship God via Jesus or Jesus via Jesus or whatever. Question for Nick: Are all Christian denominations equally in good standing with mighty Jesus, or are some denominations better than others? Why?

Stanza 3 - My favorite, if for nothing else than its inclusion of the contraction "ye've." Usually the poets and preachers warn that our present age is the most corrupt and turbulent OF ALL TIME. Yeats warned of it. Arnold, too. The Anglo-Saxons thought the end was nigh for their corrupt age. Heck, the folks in the Gospels think that the return of Jesus is imminent. But in Nick's stanza, we are told that our age is best for being last. We happy happy few will get to greet the magic Hebrew when he comes back to collect his souvenirs. We are exhorted to put away our unbelief as if it were but childish obstinacy. Question for Nick: Do you think your tone here approaches the kind of heckling that atheists exhibit toward religion?

Stanza 4 - The fun ends here, as the ol' "fool in his heart" allusion comes up yet again. We are supposed to be made fearful of this pit of hell and instead yearn to be man-carried by our big, strong, ripply-muscled Jesus up to heaven. The misspelling of "devine" (for divine, obviously) redeems the stanza for me. Question for Nick: Seriously, and with no judgment whatsoever, is the homoeroticism surrounding the relationship of the male believer and Jesus part of what makes the religion attractive? I mean, does the scene of worship allow straight men to play out homoerotic impulses?

I must admit I prefer Herrick's original. Herrick advises the virgins to seize the day:
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
Don't play a silly game of pretense, Herrick urges, but rather be open and industrious. Have a sense of urgency about finding love and living love. Herrick counsels that we live this very day with the very people around us. Herrick is a realist. I do not think it's very sporting of our Nick to have bent Herrick's happy verse. But I don't like to think of any poetry as bad, so I'll applaud Nick's effort.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March Madness

Sorry, no, this has nothing to do with college basketball. Instead, I want to make a bold -- bold, I tell ya -- prediction concerning an essay I recently submitted. I developed my little piece for the Share Your Secular Story Contest. Although I conceived, drafted and submitted the essay over the course of a day, I have some confidence that it's a winner.

This might sound boastful, but I am not predicting that the essay will win the contest. I just mean that it's a very good piece that has a reasonable chance of getting to the runner-up stage. I'm not naive, though. I know this contest will get a boatload of essays from REALLY REALLY smart people who are original, thoughtful, witty and great writers. I still think my submission will be able to stand with these others.

My story talks a bit about growing up Jewish and negotiating happiness in and out of religion. I was only allowed 800 words, so I had to keep things tight. The story's supposed to be true, and mine is, but I think I also told things "slant," to borrow from Emily Dickinson.

Since the winner gets the essay published in a place like the Washington Post, I am making a deal with myself. Should my essay be selected as a grand-prize winner and get published in the WaPo, I'll "out" myself by dropping the pseudonym.

If you hadn't guessed, my real name is not Larry Tanner. Larry Tanner was a stupid nickname given to me when I was an undergraduate, but it has nothing to do with my actual name. I started using the pseudonym when I thought just having a blog put at risk my professional life and aspirations. These days I also have blogs under my own name that relate to my research and studies.

Winners of the Share Your Secular Story contest will be announced after June 1.

Krugman on the Health Insurance Reform Vote

Fear Strikes Out, by Paul Krugman
22 March 2010

The day before Sunday’s health care vote, President Obama gave an unscripted talk to House Democrats. Near the end, he spoke about why his party should pass reform: “Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

And on the other side, here’s what Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House — a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader — had to say: If Democrats pass health reform, “They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation.

I’d argue that Mr. Gingrich is wrong about that: proposals to guarantee health insurance are often controversial before they go into effect — Ronald Reagan famously argued that Medicare would mean the end of American freedom — but always popular once enacted.

But that’s not the point I want to make today. Instead, I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, the closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism. Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality? (Actually, we know who: the people at the Tea Party protest who hurled racial epithets at Democratic members of Congress on the eve of the vote.)

And that cynicism has been the hallmark of the whole campaign against reform.

Yes, a few conservative policy intellectuals, after making a show of thinking hard about the issues, claimed to be disturbed by reform’s fiscal implications (but were strangely unmoved by the clean bill of fiscal health from the Congressional Budget Office) or to want stronger action on costs (even though this reform does more to tackle health care costs than any previous legislation). For the most part, however, opponents of reform didn’t even pretend to engage with the reality either of the existing health care system or of the moderate, centrist plan — very close in outline to the reform Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts — that Democrats were proposing.

Instead, the emotional core of opposition to reform was blatant fear-mongering, unconstrained either by the facts or by any sense of decency.

It wasn’t just the death panel smear. It was racial hate-mongering, like a piece in Investor’s Business Daily declaring that health reform is “affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.” It was wild claims about abortion funding. It was the insistence that there is something tyrannical about giving young working Americans the assurance that health care will be available when they need it, an assurance that older Americans have enjoyed ever since Lyndon Johnson — whom Mr. Gingrich considers a failed president — pushed Medicare through over the howls of conservatives.

And let’s be clear: the campaign of fear hasn’t been carried out by a radical fringe, unconnected to the Republican establishment. On the contrary, that establishment has been involved and approving all the way. Politicians like Sarah Palin — who was, let us remember, the G.O.P.’s vice-presidential candidate — eagerly spread the death panel lie, and supposedly reasonable, moderate politicians like Senator Chuck Grassley refused to say that it was untrue. On the eve of the big vote, Republican members of Congress warned that “freedom dies a little bit today” and accused Democrats of “totalitarian tactics,” which I believe means the process known as “voting.”

Without question, the campaign of fear was effective: health reform went from being highly popular to wide disapproval, although the numbers have been improving lately. But the question was, would it actually be enough to block reform?

And the answer is no. The Democrats have done it. The House has passed the Senate version of health reform, and an improved version will be achieved through reconciliation.

This is, of course, a political victory for President Obama, and a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. But it is also a victory for America’s soul. In the end, a vicious, unprincipled fear offensive failed to block reform. This time, fear struck out.

A Textual Debate at Uncommon Descent

I don't have time at the moment to comment on this (update, 9/2010: see the very end), but I want to flag an interesting discussion happening over at Uncommon Descent. I know, I know. But the discussion is worth having and studying because it's about text and about the problem of defining textual concepts.

Barry Arrington opens the thread with his usual brand of armchair philosophy:
The Medium is Not the Message

March madness is upon us. In that vein, I ask you to consider the following sentence: “A basketball is round and orange.”

You read this sentence through a medium, probably a computer screen. This means I had an idea, and I wrote out on my computer screen a representation of the idea in symbols (Latin letters forming English words arranged together into a sentence using the rules of English grammar and syntax). I uploaded these symbols onto the website. You downloaded the symbols to your computer and deciphered them. Now a representation of the idea that was once in my head is in your head. When you read my sentence you thought about a round orange basketball.

Now consider this. My computer, the UD server, and your computer all have physical properties that can be measured. These properties include mass, charge, etc. But the information in the sentence “A basketball is round and orange” is quite independent of the physical properties of the medium on which it is placed. Indeed, none of the physical properties of your computer changed when you downloaded the information. The physical properties of your computer were rearranged, but they did not change. Your computer had the same mass, the same charge, the same specific gravity, etc. after you downloaded the sentence that it did before you downloaded it.

Think of it this way. Suppose I wrote the same sentence (“A basketball is round and orange”) on a piece of paper and handed it to you and asked you to read and memorize it. You proceed to memorize the sentence. I take the paper back and burn it. Then I ask you to repeat the sentence into a tape recorder. You dictate “A basketball is round and orange” into the tape recorder. What just happened? The information was in my head. Then it was on the paper. Then it was in your head, but not the paper. Now it is on the tape of the tape recorder.

What is the point of all this? The point is that information may be transmitted on a physical medium, but it is not reducible to the medium on which it is carried, and it is independent of the medium upon which it is carried. Information has no mass. It has no charge. Indeed, it has no property that can be measured by the same means we measure matter and energy. We conclude, therefore, that information is not reducible to matter, and it is not reducible to energy, and it is not reducible to a combination of matter and energy. Yet we know that information exists in the universe. Therefore, we must conclude that the universe is more than matter and energy, that it is more than mere particles in motion.

If the existence of information cannot be reduced to the properties of matter and energy, where did it come from? Where indeed?
Let me be clear that I think Arrington has introduced a wonderful and complex topic and treated it with prejudice, smugness, and a resistance to exploring the underlying assumptions of his own reasoning. Here are some of the first comments, abridged:
1- Its what they call an abstract noun. Each of us creates it anew in our head. It doesnt ‘exist’ just as a circle, happiness etc dont exist.
They are concepts, not objects.

2- All information is an abstraction. It requires perception to exist.

3- I don’t get this. If information “has no property that can be measured by the same means we measure matter and energy,” what’s Dr. Dembski doing all that math for? Isn’t a lot of that about measuring information?

4- Actually, your example would have only been more demonstrative if the phrase passed about was “material is all there is”.

5- Re #1: So if all of a sudden all perception would, let’s say, die, then all information would suddenly disappear?

6- (by Barry A.) In [1] Graham uses information to deny the existence of information. Self refute much? In answer to composer’s question in [3], I did not say that information cannot be measured. I said it cannot be measured in the way matter and energy can be measured, because it has neither mass nor energy.
Returning to the original post, I think we need to clarify terms first. Arrington uses the word "information," but he really is talking about "meaning." The terms overlap in their senses, but when he says
The information was in my head. Then it was on the paper. Then it was in your head, but not the paper. Now it is on the tape of the tape recorder
he is probably referring to the meaning of the information string being "in his head," or "on the paper."

When we adjust our terminology a bit, we are better equipped to address the problem Arrington raises. We have a message encoded on the computer screen, just a configuration of photons and such. Or we have a message encoded on a piece of paper, just marks inscribed by a pen and ink. The meaning derives from a living mind associating the symbols (individually and collectively) with words in a mental vocabulary, with ideas in memory and thought banks, and with complete expressions in an internal grammar derived from native human capability and cultural instruction.

My point is that we can reasonably and cleanly get from the physical causes of the information strings (photons, marks) to the mental processes of meaning. Arrington is correct that the medium is not the message. He is right that meaning "is not reducible to the medium on which it is carried, and it is independent of the medium upon which it is carried." He is wrong, or perhaps misguided, to say that meaning is not reducible to matter and energy. It certainly is. It reduces to brain states, a brain of matter and working through energy. Our universe still holds a great many mysteries, but meaning--or information, as Arrington would have it--is not one of them.

Friday, March 19, 2010

For a Friend

In honor and support of T.S., a video of a 1970 performance of "Uncle John's Band," by the Grateful Dead.

Be well and happy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Invitation for Guest Posts

I feel like I've been too hostile lately toward religion and the religious. I mean too hostile in terms of articulation and approach, and not necessarily with regard to ideas or arguments. But hostility's not a good thing, even in a blogging persona. So, I offer my apologies and will try to do better.

But talk is cheap. To do better, I want to try something new for this blog and invite people to make guest posts on the topics of religious belief, atheism, music, current events, and a vague category I'll call reasoning/text/interpretation. To be honest, most any topic is OK with me, so long as it says something new and different - and hopefully true!

If you are interested, please email me with your first post. The email address is lartanner [at] hotmail [dot] com. The best 1 or 2 email posts, from any viewpoint, will be posted on Textuality, and the authors may be invited to become permanent bloggers here.

I hope this is something that interests people and does its part for a better blogosphere.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Good Religious Values

Arabi, Louisiana -- House formerly flooded out in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
If you are religious, you "approve" all of the following:
1. A man sets his own apartment building on fire, killing all the people and animals inside. However, he saves some of his own family and a few of the pets.
2. A man buys some dogs and has them compete in fighting competitions. When many of them lose, the man destroys the dogs and their offspring.
3. A mother learns that her son masturbates. She is offended by this and then kills him.
4. A sniper shoots at every person who walks outside from a store, killing those people.
5. A woman with several cats drowns the first-born kitten of every new litter.
6. A neighbor overhears a teenager having a spat with her parents. At one point, the angry teen says to her mother and father: “I wish I didn’t live here. I wish you weren’t my parents. I hope someday you feel as bad as you are making me feel.” The neighbor murders the teen for what she said to her parents.
7. A man with children marries and lives with a woman who also has children. He orders his wife and oldest child to bring any of the woman’s children to him who prefer their biological father and will not call the man “Dad.” The man murders those children.
Why do you support these actions? Because such behavior is modeled in the Bible.
1. Genesis 7:21-23 -- Worldwide flood.
2. Revelation 4:11 -- God creates mankind for his own pleasure then God destroys (murders) men, women and their babies when he isn’t pleased.
3. Genesis 38:9-10 -- Onan, when he has sex with his brother’s widow, wastes his seed on the ground. What he has done offends God. God murders him.
4. Exodus 9:23-25 -- God murders by hail every man that is outdoors.
5. Exodus 12:29 -- God murders all of Egypt’s firstborn.
6. Exodus 21:17 & Leviticus 20:9 -- Whoever curses his father or mother shall be murdered.
7. Luke 19:27 -- Jesus says: Those who would not have me be king over them, bring them before me and slay them.
So I guess God is love...except if you don't meet certain conditions that (a) are ambiguously expressed, (b) contradict other conditions, (c) are not agreed upon by a diverse array of biblical "experts," and (d) are not applicable to you anyway because you are not the right kind of people.

More likely, God is fear. Bertrand Russell has it quite correct:
Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.
So too does Karl Marx rightly observe the cultural use of religion to control populations:
The wretchedness of religion is at once an expression and a protest against real wretchedness. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the feeling of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of unspiritual conditions. It is the opium of the people.
In and through religion, people become trained to accept as divine fiat that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. People train themselves into agents of conservatism, social and economic inequity, and intellectual ghettoization.

Here comes the objection, and this from a humanist who at one level makes a valid point:
If the question they [i.e., atheists] are asking about religion is, Don’t these damned believers know what’s in the Bible, the answer is somewhere in the range between probably not to possibly so; but even if they do, they probably know that the Bible is not recommending carving up your girlfriend. And probably can guess that when you find blood and gore of this magnitude the story is about something else. Phrases and words like “symbolism,” “surface meaning,” “allegory,” “folk legend” and “myth” come to mind.
Probably? They probably know what the Bible really means? No, R. Joseph Hoffmann, I don't think we can say that they probably know. By the same token, we can't say that they know God isn't love. Even more egregious is the tacit idea that we must not criticize or point out the more unsavory elements of the Bible. We may really know that the Bible isn't really advocating carving up one's girlfriend, but does this mean we should just move on from the apparent advocacy and not reflect on it? You criticize atheists for constructing straw men, I think we're exhuming very real skeletons.

"God is Love" is one of those meaningless statements that sound pleasant and appeal to people's ardent desires for love and security. But don't just accept the statement on its face. This claim about God is belied by the reported actions of the fictional deity. It's belied by the disjunction between  behavior that we actually would find acceptable in our culture and behavior that we only can accept within the confines of the imagined world of the Bible.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Jewish to Atheist

Undoctrinate from Scott Lazes on Vimeo.
A short (and brilliant) film about the Jewish transition to Atheism.
When I "came out" as an Atheist, the most shocking thing to my shocked loved ones was that I now wrote out the "o" in "God" instead of the "G-d" I'd conscientiously done before. That "o" was the signal that I'd really rejected the idea.

I do the lowercase "g" too, but not always. It depends on the context.

Monday, March 08, 2010

You Atheists, Always Talkin' 'Bout Gawd!

I talk about God much more now, as an Atheist, than I ever did as a non-Atheist.

Of course, talking about God these days usually means talking about the non-existence of God. In this sense, the subject may more properly be identified as ontology or observation rather than God him/her/itself. Less frequently, I talk about how in the Bibles, God really is quite a wicked character.

No question, though: God comes up in conversation quite often in my original posts and in replies to commentators. Amused believers read all my God-text and are pleased to suggest that I harbor latent theistic beliefs. Or they trot out a popular quote from G.K. Chesterton: "If there were no God, there would be no atheists."

Now, Chesterton's aphorism makes a nice sound bite, but it's not correct. Were I slightly cheekier, I would retort, "If there were no evolution, there would be no creationists." My proverb, at least, has the benefit of being factually true.

But the best and most direct response to Chesterton is to correct him: if there were no religion, there would be no atheists. Religion and its conjoined sibling, dogma, are the conditions that lead to people self-identifying as Atheists. God the being is, well, incidental. As ever, when we really start to look into matters, God is actually irrelevant.

Indeed, if it weren't for atheists, God would not be brought up nearly as much. Many believers are actually ashamed of God and uncomfortable with their belief. They simply do not want it challenged.

I bring up God, then, to expose the whole idea to inquiry. When the concept is brought into the foreground, we can clearly see its flaws and chips and patches and scratches. The believer wants God to be the eternal mystery, the thing we will never attain or know. The Atheist wants to talk about God. The fact is, we know all too much about him/her/it.

As for Chesterton, I have never been impressed with him. To me, he lives on that tier well below Wilde and Shaw. His little quip here opens itself up to reverse formulations that make much more sense, such as if there were a God, there would be no atheists. We Atheists "are," after all, because he/she/it is not.

So, believers, let's talk about God. Let's discuss your concept of God. Why not? What are you afraid of?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Litmus Test

Question: If you thought God were commanding you to murder a small child you knew to be innocent, would you obey?

Monday, March 01, 2010


I was responding to another blogger on his site. He'd given what I thought was a poorly argued post on the kidneys and how they represent God's many kindnesses.

I thought immediately to remind him of the very recent earthquake in Chile as a counter example - after all, if God is responsible for the kidneys, according to his theory, then God should also be responsible for disasters such as earthquakes. I pointed out, too, that perhaps God should be held responsible for the congenital kidney problems many people suffer, but this person is impervious to dealing with these elements in his theory.

His predictable tactic was to brand me an ingrate who should donate his two kidneys if they weren't so great. But this is the sort of person we're dealing with, a man who sincerely believes that the Holocaust is an example of divine benevolence to the Jews.

What's the proper response to such intractable lunacy? Why doggerel, of course....
Thank you, god, for the kidneys,
Thank you, god, for the quakes,
Thanks for the Nazi stormtroopers
Impaling our children on stakes.

Thanks for disease and thanks for our health,
It don't make no difference,
To us it's all wealth.

And because I say thanks,
It puts me in bliss,
And I'll just go on and ignore
The feeling you just don't exist.