Monthly Archives: November 2012

Ready, Set, Darwin Award!

Mano Paul asks if we are ready and steady to go. Here are some biblical tests for readiness:

Snake Handling (Mark 16:18) – results in death (the sins of the father, indeed)

Poison Drinking (Mark 16:18) – results in death (strychnine poisoning is particularly nasty)

Faith Healing (Mark 16:18) – results in death for the patient, possible fame and fortune for the “healer

Street Living (Matthew 19:21) – lifespan reduced by 1/3 in LA, probably more in other parts of the world

Baby Killing (1 Samuel 15:3, Psalms 137:9, Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Genesis 22:9-10) – results in death for the babies, probably life imprisonment or death penalty for the parents

Baby Eating (Leviticus 26:29) – results in death for the babies, almost certainly death penalty preferred to the torture one would receive in prison by inmates and guards

It seems that if more Christians really believed in the letter of Biblical Law, then we’d see a lot more candidates for the Darwin Award. Fortunately, most people’s common sense and adoption of modern secular values trumps most of the patently wrong information in the Bible. We should be glad that even if Christians are ready and steady to prosecute their beliefs, they’re at least not ready to hear or say “Go”.

Unthinking Tribalism

“You’re either with us or you’re against us.” This phrase, notably associated with the Bush II presidency (though it was actually Hillary Clinton who said it first during that period), is an artifact of our early tribal days, when humans had to survive by banding together in small nomadic groups. It is rather less useful in modern society, when we depend on an intricately connected global network which suffers at the hands of these archaic tribal notions.

What does it mean for people to claim, as Mano Paul does, that they’re in God company? Probably nothing good. The German military, including under Hitler’s command, used the phrase Gott Mit Uns. The Israelites believed God wanted them to massacre the Canaanites, even the women and children. Crusaders believed their military expeditions were ordained by God, and the Catholic church told them so. The 9/11 terrorists praised their God, too. When people say they’re in God company, especially when they’re quoting their holy book, we should rightly be concerned about a coming genocide.

The answer to “who is against us” seems invariably to be “other humans”. If you’ve committed yourself to violence against humanity, chances are good that you’ve made a mistake in your moral reasoning somewhere along the way. In that respect, we should be happy that more and more people are coming down on the side against God.

The absurdity of God-invoked militarism is most clearly seen in the modern athlete who thanks the heavens for a victory or good play, as if God cared for the outcome of a football game. There is no scriptural support for this kind of nonsense, so it is the most naked example of our tribal roots shining through centuries of cultural evolution. Until we all recognize it for what it is and shed our in-group/out-group prejudices, we will still live in a world marked by genocide, whether we credit it to God or not.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a time when Christians take away the credit for the good things that other people in their lives do and give it to their nonexistent god. Thanksgiving is a time when US Christians must thank God for giving them so much when He is starving the children of Africa and developing nations elsewhere in the world, even in parts of America. Thanksgiving is a time when atheists can give sincere thanks to the people in their lives and honestly appreciate the coincidences that have favored them without having to ignore the injustice of the purposeless universe.

Fortunately, Mano Paul’s son’s natural human tendencies have not yet been fully corrupted by Christianity’s evil teachings. He is thankful for his brother, the world we live in, and his parents’ love before he gets around to tossing Jesus a bone. Unfortunately, if he continues his religious indoctrination, it won’t be long before his first priority will be to bow before God, and to denigrate others who thank their fellow man without giving away their credit. We humans are social creatures and rely on each other for help and support. We are dishonored when credit for our work is given to someone else who did nothing. So much the worse when that someone isn’t even there.

Theodicy is particularly salient during a time of thanks. Christians must either willfully ignore the suffering distributed by God’s hands when thanking Him for the benefits they have received, or must somehow twist their morality in such a way that they can view this suffering and unfairness in a positive light. On the one hand, they are at best callous or ignorant. On the other, they must really be thankful that God has chosen for them such a comparatively easy path through this life. They must actually thank God for bone cancer in children.

Our world looks just like we would expect it to look if it wasn’t the creation of some intelligent, moral mind, but the result of deterministic but unthinking natural laws. We don’t have to thank the universe for our blessings or be forced to accept the unfairness alongside those blessings. Neither are the result of an intentional mind. So we are free to give credit where credit is due: to the people who make life living and who are working to make life better for everyone. We can recognize the circumstances where we are more fortunate than others without the moral conflict of having to believe that someone intended for it to be that way.

Patience

Mano Paul asks how one can define patience. What is wrong with using a dictionary? Apparently it isn’t appropriately deferential to God’s will. If the biblical definition of patience really amounts to longsuffering by God’s capriciousness, then society is better off when we are all impatient.

To follow Abraham’s example is particularly abhorrent. No modern court would acquit infanticide on the grounds that “God told me to do it”, and rightly so. I hope that anyone would sooner assume of themselves that they were suffering from mental illness than to trust that the murderous voice in their head really was the voice of God asking for blood sacrifice. And what bastardization of the English language would be necessary to accept murder as a logical consequence of patience?

If we are to believe that death, disease, and suffering are all part of God’s plan, how do we understand our own pain and rebelliousness against them? Why would God create us to be capable of such suffering and then inflict it upon all of us? Why should we be accomplices to our own misery and not stand up to such injustice?

Instead, we should celebrate our impatient heroes, like Joseph Lister who helped develop the germ theory of disease and prevented billions of untimely deaths. What Christian could honestly condemn our efforts to cure cancer as the thwarting of God’s will? Who could curse the meteorologists for learning the patterns of weather and providing millions of people with the information they need to escape the devastating path of hurricanes?

It is hypocritical to claim deference to God’s will and at the same time enjoy the conveniences of modern technology (the fruit of the tree of knowledge). To truly exemplify the “virtue” of Mano’s version of patience, one must forego all earthly will and accept whatever we have coming. I would rather applaud those who pursue a better fate for humanity than the one we would expect from a jealous, genocidal, arbitrary, and vengeful god.

What are you missing?

Mano Paul asks “Whatcha lookin’ at?” to his fellow Christians. Supposedly, the correct answer should be “Jesus, the converted, and ourselves.” Conspicuously missing is an entire universe of scientific, philosophical, and even religious scholarship.

Human cognition is dangerously susceptible to a failure mode called confirmation bias. Not only are we prone to prefer evidence that supports what we already believe, but we tend to ignore or discount evidence that contradicts our beliefs. Usually this happens without our even being aware of it! Notice how Mano’s list contains nothing but sources of confirming evidence. If you never honestly examine conflicting viewpoints, how will you ever know if you’re wrong?

There is a powerful operating tool to help find and eliminate bias and wrong belief called “making beliefs pay rent“. Pick any belief of yours that you think is true. What would the world look like if that belief is true? What does it look like if the belief is false? How would you construct a test to find out one way or the other? If you actually care whether the things you believe are true, then you should want to discard any belief that could never be meaningfully tested.

Points to ponder

When you look UP and OUT at Jesus, how do you know that what you’re seeing is actually true, and not just agreeing with what you already believed before?

When you look upon your fields of the converted, why do you not pay more careful attention to the seeds that didn’t grow? If you truly believe that non-Christians will burn, surely you should care if you’re not getting through to them. If you can acknowledge that the message isn’t effective, only then can you be ready to try a different approach. If you understand why others aren’t convinced, maybe then you might realize why you shouldn’t be convinced, either.

Self-reflection is extremely important, but there is a lot more to it than simply checking to make sure we’re still on Jesus’ “nice” list and not the “naughty” list. Virtue should be its own reward. Are we actually behaving virtuously? How would we know if we are not? Are we making a positive impact on the world? Do others see us the same way we see ourselves? Proper self-reflection requires a mirror; not the mirror of our own minds that shows us only what we want to see, but the mirror of others that shows us how we really are.

Shallow Be thy Meme

In his “Points to ponder”, Mano Paul raises three points: 1) God punishes words; 2) God punishes actions; 3) our actions must match our words.

Is it moral to punish speech?

In western societies, we value the freedom of speech, particularly in the United States. But apparently God doesn’t. What should we think of a God who can’t handle a little name-in-vain taking? Shouldn’t we hold an all-powerful, all-knowing being to a higher standard even than we hold our presidents, or public officials, or celebrities who must endure all manner of satire and insult and yet somehow restrain themselves from smiting?

The USA does have some limits and punishes some classes of speech. We criminalize incitements to violence (both of the “jihad” type and the “yell-fire-in-crowded-theater” type). We punish libel. It is easily argued that these classes of speech are punishable because they cause harm to others. So in that sense speech is more akin to an action.

Is it moral to punish actions?

Yes, probably, and proportionally to the crime, even though free will is an illusion. But in any case, many Christians believe that God doesn’t actually punish actions, only non-belief. All that is necessary to get into heaven (supposed infinite non-punishment) is to believe in God. All other sins can be forgiven. Conversely, many Christians believe that non-belief will be punishable by eternal torture in hell. The fact that God exacts infinite punishment for a finite crime is bad enough. When the crime in question is simple disbelief in a world where God provides no evidence for existence, God starts to look pretty vindictive.

Should our actions match our words?

Humans are social animals. Much like wolves, other apes, and other pack animals, we evolved behaviors to reward cooperation and punish defection. If our say-do ratio is low, we are considered untrustworthy and are shunned, fired, or generally disbelieved. If we underpromise and overdeliver, we tend to be rewarded with promotions and thought of as reliable. If we condemn some behavior while at the same time practicing it ourselves, we are rightly thought of as hypocrites.

What if we hold God to the same standards as our fellow humans (or even animals)? Do God’s actions and words match up? God promises that a little faith will let men move mountains. Has that promise ever been fulfilled? God promises the destruction of Tyre. Yet Tyre exists to this day. The Bible is full of broken promises. Why should anyone trust God? Why should we think of God as the moral standard for the say-do ratio, when most humans deliver so much more of what they promise?