In Praise of Folly

Where is Erasmus when you need him? The Catholic divine might have thought he chased this sort of folly out of Christianity 500 years ago, but it appears not.

. . . three Christian ministers today blessed the doors of the hearing room where Senate Judiciary Committee members will begin considering the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito on Monday.

Capitol Hill police barred them from entering the room to continue what they called a consecration service. But in a bit of one-upsmanship, the three announced that they had let themselves in a day earlier, touching holy oil to the seats where Judge Alito, the senators, witnesses, Senate staffers and the press will sit, and praying for each of the 13 committee members by name.

“We did adequately apply oil to all the seats,” said the Rev. Rob Schenck, who identified himself as an evangelical Christian and as president of the National Clergy Council in Washington.
. . .
The two men, along with Grace Nwachukwu, general manager of a group called Faith and Action, read three Psalms outside the committee room, knelt to say the Lord’s Prayer and marked a cross in oil on the committee door before leaving. –Wall Street Journal, Jan 5, 2006

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Agnosticism Revisited & the Case for Atheism

It is easy to understand how one can be undecided about the existence of God. I’m often undecided myself, since doubting my convictions is the first step in any serious analysis; yet I am as atheist as they come.

Agnosticism generally takes three forms today. There is the traditional agnostic who maintains that no one can prove or disprove God’s existence and therefore the only intelligent position is to say “we can’t know”. The second sees agnosticism as a beginning point, a method of skepticism or doubt from which to proceed. The third type says withholding belief in God because of insufficient evidence is identical to being atheist (generally called weak atheism).

Today a great many atheists are actually agnostic-atheists of this last sort. For an example of the 2nd group, see David Eller’s essay “Agnosticism: the basis for atheism not an alternative to it”. (Eller argues that agnosticism is a method that if properly followed leads directly to atheism.)

But my focus now is agnosticism of the first sort. Advocates of this position claim to know basicly two things:

(a) there are no logically sound proofs or disproofs of God’s existence

(b) therefore there is insufficient reason to adapt either theism or atheism

I have no doubt that to the agnostic’s best knowledge, both claims are true. He or she isn’t aware of a convincing case for belief or disbelief.

But maybe that’s because our agnostic simply hasn’t been exposed to strong atheist arguments. Which would not be surprising. Most atheists are actually weak atheists, our group three above who disbelieve because of insufficient evidence. Weak atheists, it seems to me, are often unaware of the best arguments for atheism.

The strongest philosophical argument for atheism, the Argument from Perfection, is rarely presented anywhere in full (often it has to be extrapolated from discussions of “the Problem of Evil”); likewise for the other arguments that constitute specific atheism. Continue reading

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Here or Elsewhere?

The first great question of life is: here or elsewhere?

All our hungers, emotions, fears, inclinations, perceptions, desires, urges, obsessions, wants, instincts and needs answer here. Yet the answer of all the great religions is elsewhere.

It is a remarkable dichotomy.  Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, even abandoned religions like Zoroastrianism, Mithraism or the Egyptian mythologies have a common message: our bodily life here on earth is not what really counts: what counts comes after we die. And yet our bodies themselves are incredibly insistent: eat sleep love, feel and do bodily things.

This disjunction between religious belief and bodily practice is perhaps greatest at death.

Religious people worldwide believe at death their loves ones leave the body and go to heaven (hopefully, at least). Then they purchase $8000 dollar caskets, expensive cemetery plots & engraved granite headstones, which they periodically visit and keep decorated with artificial flowers, all the while believing (as far as their religious beliefs go, at least) that the person is not located in the decaying corpse in the casket in the graveyard at all, but somewhere else: up in heaven.

It is perplexing to me, and always has been. The practice is to treat the dead as if they are a corpse under the ground, while the belief is that they are a spirit in heaven. Why doesn’t the practice conform to the belief?

Or, more to the point, why isn’t the belief strong enough to modify the practice? If we are not careful, this question spreads. Why do even the most religious people care so inordinately about the well-being of their bodies? Why such attention to food and shelter and sex and pleasure? Why such fear of dying when dying is the only way to get to the world that really matters? The answer is that our bodies insist on life. They insist on here and now.

Hunger, cold, wet, warmth, desire, satisfaction—this is the body’s reality. But the religious mind rejects what the body needs and loves for something after death.

It wasn’t always so. The earliest human religions were here religions. Though it’s true, as archaeologists point out, that the practice of burying the dead goes far back into human prehistory, it is nevertheless flawed to interpret ancient practice based on modern bias. Contrary to popular assumptions, there are strong practical and emotional reasons for burials, reasons which don’t themselves point to belief in afterlife. Dead bodies decompose and stink, and become extremely unsanitary. It is emotionally disturbing to see dead humans lying around—quadruply so when it is the body of a loved one. Imagine the emotional impact of seeing animals and vultures clawing and pecking at your dead mate or child.

It’s easy to understand the human desire for burial, quite apart from the question of afterlife. It is merely a modern bias to conclude that burying the dead demonstrates belief in afterlife. It demonstrates only the belief that the dead should be buried. Beyond that we must look for other clues.

And so I repeat: the earliest religions were here religions. Their spirits were nature spirits, their gods nature gods; their magic and shamanism were efforts to tap into the unknown powers of nature. Only later did the more sophisticated notion of a separate spiritual world, a world wholly other to everything we see around us, a world of elsewhere come into being. Continue reading

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Berkeley, Cohen & Materialism

I am a fan of Chapman Cohen, who about a century ago was a writer for Freethinker magazine and president of its parent organization in Great Britain, the National Secular Society. I have his Essays in Freethinking, Volume Two. I am not always in agreement with him, but his perspective is usually interesting.

His essay, The Ghost of Religion, is of particular interest — although in my opinion largely mistaken. Continue reading

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Relativism & the Pope

Ratzinger, the new Pope, wrote

“Having a clear faith, based on the Creed of the Church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas, relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ‘swept along by every wind of teaching’, looks like the only attitude (acceptable) to today’s standards. We are moving towards a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” – Pope Benedict XVI

Which is a very confused description of relativism. On the one hand it sounds like relativism = being open to “every wind of teaching”, that is to say it looks like our new Pope confuses relativism with open-mindedness — and opposes open-mindedness. The desire to be sure of the truth, to not be misled as a result of lack of exposure to ideas, which leads one to listen to “every wind of teaching” (the Pope says “swept along by” but that is mere hyperbole) he equates with being selfish.

It is selfish to want to know the truth, says our new Pope. It is selfish to listen to what reform Catholics — or God forbid non-Catholics — think. Relativism means simply “not bowing down to the wisdom of the Pope”. Continue reading

Posted in Christinsanity, Ethics & Morality | 2 Comments

Eve’s Breasts

With apologies to Christ (who I’m certain would have been as perplexed as I am), we have more evidence of the moral insanity of American Christians. An artist in Roseville, Michigan and an art gallery owner in Pilot Point, Texas have been arrested and convicted (Edward Stross of Roseville) or threatened with arrest (Dwight Miller of Pilot Point) for painting murals depicting God’s creation of Eve. Read about it here. Both artists had the apparently not-so-original idea of painting a variation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (the original graces the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) using Eve in place of Adam. The problem? Eve has breasts—naked breasts. God forgot to create her with clothing, it seems.

For that, the artists had to be charged with pornography.

These are the same Christians going apoplectic over breasts who don’t seem to have a problem in the world with torture.

The flaw with the Christian religion (and from my point of view it is an unforgivable flaw) is that it loves pain and hates bodily pleasure. Pleasures are “deadly sins” which God will, according to Christinsanity, punish with eternal pain. Sex, of course, is a horror, but so is the entirely innocent pleasure of being a body and having breasts—if you can be seen by anyone. Continue reading

Posted in Atheist Culture, Christinsanity | 2 Comments

Intelligent Design Unveiled

Natural History magazine (4/02) has a set of articles on intelligent design: three by intelligent design advocates Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, followed by three responses by Kenneth R. Miller, Robert T. Pennock, and Eugenie C. Scott. Then an interesting article about the history and strategy of intelligent design advocates by Barbara Forrest. And last, Ian Tattersall weighs in on science vs. religion and argues that they are not really in conflict!

At least, they would not be in conflict, he seems to say, if religionists would only stay in their place — which is to reveal timeless, absolute truths–and stay out of the scientific realm — which deals with knowledge that is provisional and anything but absolute. Tattersall writes:

“How can we make progress in science if what we believe today cannot be shown tomorrow to be somehow wrong or at least incomplete? Religious knowledge is in principle eternal, but scientific knowledge is by its very nature provisional.”

He goes on to say

“scientists are in pursuit of knowledge about mundane realities and are not in the business of revealing timeless truths.”

True enough. But has he succeeded in setting up “non-overlapping magisteria” (as I believe Stephen J. Gould described it) between science and religion?

He has not. The distinction between absolute and provisional truth is not a distinction of subject matter but rather a distinction of the nature of knowing. Continue reading

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Clone and Punishment

Imagine that someone took some stem cells from your bone marrow and created a clone of you. Imagine, however, that you have never met this clone, that it lives in a different place. A few months later you learn that this twin of yours has been injured. What is the likely effect of learning about its injury? It is natural to feel sympathy for the clone’s pain, but probably you would not react as strongly as you would to the injury of a close friend or sibling, someone you knew and loved.

Imagine the news now comes that an enemy of yours has captured the clone and has begun to torture it, under the assumption that torturing your clone will have the effect of torturing you.

Undoubtedly you consider this behavior barbaric and evil. But you will probably also find it bizarre that your enemy honestly believes that inflicting pain on the clone will literally inflict pain on you—as if the clone was some kind of voodoo doll. You will consider the enemy’s behavior evil, certainly, but also stupid.

But what now if the clone is somehow downloaded with your memories, so that it becomes not just a duplicate of your body but also a duplicate of your mind. Would this new twist make a difference when the bad guy tortured the clone? Would it make it so that torturing the clone now had the literal effect of torturing you?

Quite obviously, it would not. Continue reading

Posted in Afterlife & Immortality, Articles Highlighted, Atheology, Christianity | 13 Comments

Ingersoll Reviews “The Passion of Christ”

Suppose, however, that God did give this law to the Jews, and did tell them that whenever a man preached a heresy, or proposed to worship any other God that they should kill him; and suppose that afterward this same God took upon himself flesh, and came to this very chosen people and taught a different religion, and that thereupon the Jews crucified him; I ask you, did he not reap exactly what he had sown? What right would this god have to complain of a crucifixion suffered in accordance with his own command?”— Robert G. Ingersoll, “Some Mistakes of Moses”

Posted in Freethinkers, Ingersoll, The Bible | 4 Comments

The Devil’s Christianity

When I was in my mid-twenties, it seemed that small saddle-stapled religious pamphlets were everywhere. Someone would ring the doorbell, smile and hand me a pamphlet explaining that Jesus was Lord. Someone else would accost me in the street and press into my hand a little booklet warning me that I would go to hell unless I believed. And in the bus station in Athens I found an entire rack of them, often complete with horned devil and pitchfork on the cover.

I longed to have something to retaliate with. So I made plans to create my own pamphlets to give in kind. I made lots of notes, and had titles planned out like: Is God Real? , Christian Vanity , Bad News for Modern Man , Is God Any Good? , The Faithlessness of Faith , and Make-Believe God.

But my favorite had the title, The Devil’s Christianity. I imagined it with a red and black devil lurking on the cover, much like many of their booklets. Only this one would put Christianity on the run—and do so using nothing but God and Genesis.

And I more or less completed it, though I never managed to turn it into a pamphlet. This was partly because I found myself exposed to pamphlet-bearing Christian far less frequently after moving to Atlanta.

But here is the text. And yes, it does put Christians on the run! Continue reading

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