Monday, November 28, 2011

What Do You Mean By That?

It's been said that the best way to fluster a religious person who's talking about their doctrines is to simply ask, "What do you mean by that?" In many cases there can only be two types of responses: either the believer will restate their point in a way that doesn't actually clarify the meaning... or, when pressed, they may be forced to admit that they don't really know what they mean. It's just something they've heard and read about, and took as truth simply because of its attachment to their belief system.

Take, for example, the idea that Jesus is "the Son of God." What do Christians mean by this? Did the Father have sex with a woman to create him? Well, no. Christians tend to see that as highly blasphemous. They maintain that Mary was impregnated by some supernatural means that's never actually explained, and was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Okaaay... well, surely the Father created Jesus in some sense, right? Well, no. In fact, Christians are adamant that he was never created. According to the Nicene Creed, the Son was "begotten, not made" and has always existed alongside the Father.

It's not even clear that it makes sense to talk about the Son as inherently male. Sure, the Bible has Jesus temporarily incarnated as a man, but in general, God is supposed to be a perfect spiritual being who transcends such earthly concepts as gender. Or do Christians think Jesus is up in heaven right now as an actual male, sitting at the right hand of the Father complete with an immaterial, spiritual penis?

All right, fine. If Jesus wasn't the product of sex, and has always existed, and isn't male in any meaningful sense, maybe it's just a metaphor of some sort. Calling Jesus "the Son" could mean that he's in some way inferior or subordinate to the Father. Well, no. One might think so after looking at certain biblical passages, but according to the widely accepted Athanasian Creed, the three persons of the trinity are "co-equal" in power and authority. Jesus is supposed to be fully God in every respect. In what sense, then, can Jesus be considered the Son of God? That's for believers to determine.

There are dozens of these little sayings and points of doctrine that are accepted without any reflection from most Christians. What does it mean to say that Jesus is "the Word of God made flesh"? What does it mean for God to be "outside of time"? In what sense can Jesus be considered "fully God and fully human"? How can God be viewed as a single being when he exists in three distinct "persons"? If Jesus "paid our ransom" to set man free from sin, to whom was that ransom owed?

I doubt that it would even be possible to coherently answer all these questions. But even if it is, there's a deeper problem here: the vast majority of Christians don't even attempt to find those answers. In most cases, it doesn't even occur to them. They read or hear that Jesus is the Word, or that God exists outside of time, and they never think to ask what it might mean. Hundreds of millions of people are satisfied—even enraptured—with a religion held together by buzzwords. They thrive on what Eliezer Yudkowsky has called "mysterious answers to mysterious questions"—that is, non-answers that halt curiosity without furthering our understanding.

That's why the skeptical outlook is so important. In some cases, challenging people on their religious beliefs will only cause offense. But if we can teach people to habitually investigate extraordinary claims, many will apply that principle to their religion and start asking questions all on their own.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Powerful Thoughts, Vol. 3

Welcome to the third installment in my anthology of quotes about atheism and related topics. Here are ones centered on God and religion:
  • "Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer." –Anon
  • "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?" –Douglas Adams
  • "If you believe what you like in the Gospels and reject what you don't like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself." –St. Augustine
  • "Thank god gay people can't legally marry each other and destroy the sanctity of what Kim Kardashian did." –Alex Blagg
  • "Be thankful that you have a life, and forsake your vain and presumptuous desire for a second one." –Richard Dawkins
  • "It is better to leave God out of the moral debate and find good human reasons for supporting the approach we advocate." –Richard Holloway
  • "You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion." –sci-fi author & Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard
  • "There is not enough love and goodness in the world for us to be permitted to give any of it away to imaginary things." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "Religion is the way we honour our ancestors' errors." –Mark M. Otoysao
  • "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." –Carl Sagan
  • "Religions are like fireflies: they require darkness in order to shine." –Arthur Schopenhauer
  • "No woman should accept any religion that assigns her a role that is at best secondary to men." –Sheila Tobias
  • "Religions are like politicians: they're easier to believe when they're vague." –from Reddit
And here are the ones centered around science and skepticism:
  • "We are all just a car crash or a slip away from being a different person." –neuropsychologist Paul Broks
  • "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." –Richard Feynman
  • "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong." –H. L. Mencken
  • "Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies." –Friedrich Nietzsche
  • "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." –Bertrand Russell
  • "Science is not perfect. It's often misused; it's only a tool, but it's the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything; with this tool, we vanquish the impossible." –Carl Sagan
  • "[Humans] probably are to intelligence what the first replicator was to biology." –Anna Salomon
  • "If your philosophy is not unsettled daily then you are blind to all the universe has to offer." –Neil deGrasse Tyson
  • "The strength of a theory is not what it can explain, but what it can't." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "Facts do not need to be unexplainable to be beautiful; truths are not less worth learning if someone else knows them." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
  • "If science is a religion, it is the religion that heals the sick and reveals the secrets of the stars." –Eliezer Yudkowsky
Finally, some outrageous quotes from fundamentalists:
  • "God has provided a more secure foundation for our faith than the shifting sands of evidence and argument." –Christian apologist William Lane Craig
  • "If somehow through my studies my reason were to turn against my faith, then so much the worse for my reason!" –Craig on his belief in Christianity
  • "Why are you reading those infidel websites anyway, when you know how destructive they are to your faith?" –Craig to a Christian expressing doubts
  • "How can you have judgment if you have no faith, and how can I trust you with power if you don't pray?" –Newt Gingrich in a recent GOP debate
As much as I enjoy the stimulating and provocative quotes from thinkers that are critical of religion, I find myself fascinated by the quotes from fundamentalists. Really, Newt Gingrich? Nonbelievers lack judgment and can't be trusted with power? Maybe you should try telling that straight to the faces of openly non-believing world leaders like Fredrik Reinfeldt (Sweden), Julia Gillard (Australia), Jens Stoltenberg (Norway) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile). I might expect this from ordinary religious extremists, but as of this writing, Gingrich is neck and neck with Mitt Romney as the highest-polling Republican presidential nominee. I'm not sure whether he truly believes what he said or merely wanted to appeal to voters, but either way it's appalling to hear this from someone who has a non-trivial chance at being our next president.

And then there are the three jaw-dropping quotes from William Lane Craig, considered by many to be the foremost Christian apologist on the planet. Coming from a man who claims to champion reason and evidence during his public debates, these views represent the absolute peak of intellectual dishonesty. To ignore logic, and to advise others to flee from opposing arguments, is simply beyond the pale. I can only imagine his outrage if atheists advised each other to take this approach. If Craig ever had a shred of my respect, he's certainly lost it now.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sorcerer and the Squid

nce upon a time there was a sorcerer named Nobu, who travelled from town to town claiming to send messages to the gods... for a small fee. One day when he entered a remote fishing village, he discovered that everyone was dressed in black to mourn the death of a boy named Kenji, who was beloved by all the villagers. Kenji made friends easily, always offered to help the neighbors with their chores, and was shaping up to be the best fisherman in the village. But he had fallen ill a few weeks earlier, and while the local doctor had done the best he could, none of his treatments were effective. Kenji had been buried only that morning.

As the villagers crowded around the grave, Nobu put a consoling hand on the shoulder of Kenji's mother and announced, "I am a powerful sorcerer, and I shall intercede for you and ask the gods to restore this boy to life... for a small fee."

Excited murmurs rippled through the crowd. "You would do that for me? For us?" said the mother, a renewed stream of tears running down her face.

Nobu grinned a brown-toothed grin. "But of course. There is no guarantee that they will grant your request, but I will be happy to speak to them for you. Now, there's just the matter of my fee..."

"Wait!" said a girl pushing her way through the mass of people. Ai had been a close companion of Kenji's before his illness. When he returned in late morning from his fishing excursions, Ai would often be waiting for him at the dock. "How do we know this man has any special power? If only he can talk to the gods, how can we tell whether they're really talking back?"

"A very wise girl!" said Nobu. "I will prove to you that I can use my magic to communicate with the gods. You there! Fishermen! Did any of you catch any squid this morning?"

"Of course," said one.

"Then let me take one to demonstrate my power, for the gods are far more generous with squids than with men. If I cannot return it to life, I'll repay you for it tenfold and be on my way."

A few minutes later they gathered in a nearby house. A half-dead squid in a wooden bowl wriggled one tentacle feebly until a fisherman brusquely chopped off its head. With the crowd watching eagerly, the sorcerer placed his hands over the bowl and muttered an incantation. Then he reached into his satchel and took out a bottle of dark brown liquid. "O great gods of the ocean, hear my plea," he intoned. "Return this spirit to the land of the living."

As he poured the potion over the tentacles, the squid sprang to life, writhing and squirming so violently that it nearly fell out of the bowl. The crowd gasped, taking a collective step backwards. "You see?" said Nobu. "My power is strong."

This was proof enough for everyone. The gods must have heard Nobu's entreaty—how else could such a miracle occur? And so the next day everyone gathered at Kenji's grave. Nobu recited his incantations and poured his dark elixir over the freshly packed ground. "O great gods of the earth, return this spirit to the land of the living."

The villagers waited restlessly, but nothing happened. All the while Nobu's eyes were closed, his hands outstretched, his mouth moving silently. Finally he opened his eyes and addressed the crowd. "The gods in their wisdom have not seen fit to raise Kenji from the dead for now. But there is good news!" he said with a smile, his stained teeth glinting dully in the sun. "They have told me that they wish to prolong his absence to make you more fully appreciate him when he returns."

His audience mumbled approvingly. They were a bit disappointed, but then, who were they to question the judgment of the gods? For most, it was enough to know that Kenji would come back eventually. But not for Ai.

"Doesn't this seem a little convenient?" she asked the crowd. "Kenji is still dead and gone, Nobu leaves with a hefty reward, and everyone is satisfied with that?"

"Now, dear, we mustn't be ungrateful," said Kenji's mother. "This man has clearly spoken to the gods, and their wisdom is far beyond what we could ever hope to grasp."

"But what if that business with the squid was just a trick?" Ai insisted. "All he would have to do is create one illusion, and he could have us all convinced without any way of knowing if what he says is true!"

A fisherman grunted in objection. "Stop talking nonsense, Ai. What illusionist could possibly bring dead creatures to life? Do you think he had that squid dancing with invisible strings?"

"I don't know how he could have done it," said Ai. "But that doesn't mean that it was the work of the gods."

"Hmph. Unless you have some other explanation, what business do you have criticizing this man's sacred work?" Several other villagers murmured their agreement, then set about dividing the burden of Nobu's payment amongst themselves. Nobu's pack was filled with silver coins and enough fresh fish and other provisions to last a week.

Nobu smiled one last time. "I will visit your village again next year. Perhaps that will be long enough."

And so the next year, Nobu returned and (for another small fee) prayed to the gods on the villagers' behalf. When nothing happened, he returned the next year, and for many years after that. When the villagers tired of waiting, Nobu would find a new trick to perform, or pronounce the gods angry at their impatience. Meanwhile, Ai slowly grew frustrated at her village's credulity. When she was grown, she set out in search of another village to call home.

*       *       *

While this story was fiction, Nobu's trick is quite real—in fact, it's actually the centerpiece of a Japanese dish called odori-don, or "dancing squid rice bowl." We might better know the sorcerer's dark brown potion as soy sauce, which if poured over a freshly killed squid really will cause it to move around:

Yes, it really is dead, and the brain has nothing to do with the reaction: the same phenomenon can be observed with frog legsIt wouldn't be at all surprising if people once attributed these eerie occurrences to a magical force. When something that should be dead suddenly gets up and starts moving, it certainly looks as though its spirit has returned to its body. It also wouldn't be surprising to see people scoff at those who object to a supernatural explanation without providing a natural one: this is a classic argument from ignorance, or more specifically, the god of the gaps fallacy.

It was not until the mid-19th century that we would even begin to understand this phenomenon. In 1848, Emil du Bois-Reymond discovered the action potential: the rapid change in electrical charge that constitutes neural firing. In 1902, Julius Berstein hypothesized that this was caused by a change in the flow of ions across the cell membrane. Finally, in 1957 Danish chemist Jans Christian Skou discovered sodium-potassium pumps, which maintain a charge of about –70 millivolts by pumping sodium ions out and potassium ions in. When soy sauce is poured on the squid, sodium ions from the salt flow into its neurons, lessening the charge. When that charge reaches about –55 millivolts, it creates an action potential: the neurons fire, causing the squid's muscles to contract.

It took many brilliant scientists working in harmony arrive at this conclusion, and for most of human history this naturalistic explanation would be many centuries away. The villagers in this tale and their descendants—dozens of generations—could have lived and died before this complex biochemical mechanism was finally uncovered. This is why posing the supernatural as an explanation is misguided even if it seems that science will never be able to explain a phenomenon, and even if that phenomenon really looks supernatural. We don't need to have a naturalistic explanation to know that a vague and vacuous panacea, advanced without any positive evidence, is no explanation at all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Suffering Servant

One of the most popular Old Testament passages that supposedly predicts the life and death of Jesus is the story of the suffering servant, found in Isaiah 52:13–53:12. Although Christians try to equate this servant with Jesus, this view holds no water upon closer inspection.

As it happens, this passage is actually the fourth of four "servant songs" that are found in the book of Isaiah. Most Jewish scholars believe that the servant referred to in each of the four songs represents the nation of Israel. This makes sense, because the Bible refers to Israel as God's servant numerous times, both in Isaiah and elsewhere. In fact, just a few chapters earlier in the third servant song, God explicitly says that the servant in question is Israel:
"And He said to me, 'You are My servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.' " (Isaiah 49:3)
As far as I'm concerned, that should really be the end of the discussion. This article describes in detail how Isaiah 53 applies to Israel—I don't necessarily agree with all of it, but it's certainly worth a look. However, Christians insist on making things more complicated than they are. Here's a summary of the main parallels that Christians see between the fourth servant song and Jesus' situation:
  • "He is despised and rejected by men" (v. 3)
  • "He was wounded for our transgressions" (v. 5)
  • "He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth" (v. 7)
  • "He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth" (v. 9)
  • "They made his grave with the wicked—but with the rich at his death" (v. 9)
This passage seems fairly impressive at first glance, but let's look at it more carefully. First, does the Bible really say that Jesus was "despised and rejected by men"? Quite the contrary: the gospels repeatedly make reference to Jesus' immense popularity; it's only a small group of Jewish leaders that plots to kill him. This verse would have applied to Jesus far better had it said, "He is loved and admired by men."

At this point it's important to understand who Jewish scholars understand to be speaking in this passage: the rulers of nations rivaling Israel. Now in verse 5, the NET Bible says that the Hebrew word min would be better translated as "because of" rather than "for," as it carries a connotation of causality. This subtly changes the meaning: instead of suffering on behalf of others' sin like the vicarious atonement attributed to Jesus, the servant is merely suffering as a result of that sin. In other words, Israel is suffering as a result of the sins of rival nations.

What about verse 7? Did Jesus really not say anything while being accused and punished? If one looks only at, say, Matthew 27:12-14, one might think so. But several other verses show that this is clearly incorrect: not only did Jesus supposedly say seven different things while on the cross, but he also talks extensively with his accusers. If the goal of Isaiah 53 was to predict the circumstances of Jesus' life, it's an undeniable failure. And speaking of inaccuracies, Isaiah 53:10 says the servant "shall see his seed; he shall prolong his days"—Jesus had no children and lived to the ripe old age of 33. Apologists respond by interpreting this metaphorically, but why do so here and not for the other verses, unless one is starting with the assumption that the passage refers to Jesus?

What about verse 9? Did Jesus really never lie or do anything violent? Actually, the gospel accounts have Jesus killing a fig tree, as well as overturning the money changers' tables and driving them out with a whip. Sure, he didn't exactly murder anyone, but these were still violent acts. As for lying, look at John 7:1-10: Jesus tells his brothers he isn't going to a feast, then secretly goes anyway. (While Jesus ostensibly says "I am not yet going up to this feast," the NU-Text comprising the oldest and most reliable manuscripts omits the "yet," suggesting that some scribe likely realized Jesus' lie and tried to cover it up.) And in John 18:19-21 Jesus tells the high priest that he always spoke openly about his doctrines and said nothing in secret, yet throughout the gospels Jesus repeatedly keeps his exalted status, his imminent death, his miracles and the meanings of his parables a secret from the public.

And does Jesus' burial in the tomb of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea fulfill the latter half of verse 9? First we should note that Jesus wasn't buried with other rich people; he was buried in a tomb provided by a rich man. All too often people excitedly overlook such details when they think they've found a fulfillment. More importantly, I've been assuming that the gospels provide accurate historical accounts of Jesus. But we already know that they altered details of Jesus' life to fulfill prophecy: I've written previously about a contradiction that resulted when the writers of Matthew and Luke concocted different birth narratives to fit a prophecy in Micah 5:2. Since the New Testament writers believed Isaiah 53 to be a messianic prophecy (based on their repeated references to it), it's quite likely that Joseph of Arimathea is a character invented for the express purpose of fulfilling that prophecy.

Finally, there are a few other relevant mistranslations in Isaiah 53 which demonstrate that Israel is the servant and not Jesus. In verse 8, which includes, "for the transgressions of my people he was stricken," the Hebrew word lamo is actually a plural pronoun. So the verse should read, "for the transgressions of my [the Gentile kings'] people they [the Israelites] were stricken." And in verse 9, the word translated "death" is a plural noun. The servant has multiple deaths, indicating that he represents multiple people (i.e. the Israelites).

At this point it should be clear not only that the fourth servant song doesn't refer to Jesus, but that it couldn't possibly do so. The servant is explicitly said to be Israel in the third servant song, the plural is used in reference to him multiple times, and several details run completely counter to the gospel accounts of Jesus' life. It's not too surprising that this passage seems to refer to Jesus at first glance; given a sufficient amount of ambiguous text, bits and pieces can be found and twisted to support virtually any view. But after nearly 2,000 years of feeble argument, it's high time for Christians to concede that this is not a prediction of the life and death of Jesus.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Truly Big Ideas

"So you don't believe in anything?"

All too often, that's the reaction that atheists get when they say they don't believe in God, or spiritual beings, or the afterlife. How (theists ask) do we go on living without believing that an almighty yet loving omni-being is always at our side? Aren't our spirits crushed at the notion that there's no guardian angel watching over us? Why bother to get up in the morning without the prospect of an eternal trip to Disneyland tacked onto the end of our lives? These are the sorts of "big ideas" that provide comfort to Christians—such great comfort, in fact, that they wonder how anyone can function without them.

But when it comes to creating big ideas, Christianity cheats by slapping the descriptor "infinite" onto its god and its afterlife. This forces people to assign them infinite importance, so that the rewards that reality promises can't hope to compete. Yet Christianity's infinitely wise and powerful creator, its promise of an infinitely lengthy stay within the confines of its pearly gates... these concepts ring hollow upon closer inspection. They turn out to be hopelessly shortsighted: mired in the culture they were thought up in and rife with unintended consequences. If we really stop to think critically about God and the afterlife, we may find that they aren't so comforting after all.

I talk about God a lot, so I'll take heaven as my example. The most vivid description we find in the Bible is in the final chapters of Revelation, but the cultural presumptions of the author are evident. Heaven is supposedly surrounded by walls, and "its gates shall not be shut at all by day (there shall be no night there)." Walled cities were common in ancient times, but if everyone who isn't in heaven is in hell, why does it need walls and gates at all? Who are they trying to keep out? Then there's the fact that the author seems bent on cramming heaven with as much gold and as many precious stones as possible—sapphires, emeralds, you name it. Each gate is made out of one giant pearl. I'm sure that sounds like heaven to an impoverished man exiled on the barren isle of Patmos, but that sort of garish decor would lose its novelty in just a few years. (He also says that "the city was pure gold, like clear glass...and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass." Not sure how that one's supposed to work.)

The author cheerfully reports that "there shall be no more death, no sorrow, no more pain," which sounds nice enough. But wait... no sorrow? What about remembering those who are suffering in hell? Is God going to make us incapable of sorrow? Is he going to remove our memories of those we lived with—friends, parents, children, spouses? My memories of those I've spent time with are a crucial part of my identity, and taking them away is in a very real sense taking away a part of me. The author also portrays heaven as a place of constant, eternal worship. I challenge even the most ardent Christian to tell me sincerely that endlessly praising God is really their idea of a good time. Finally, he says that heaven will be a place free from sin. But what if a few billion years down the road I happen to tell a white lie to one of my fellow worshippers? Sin seems inevitable... unless we've somehow been made incapable of it. How could God prevent sin without removing my free will to sin?

And so heaven, which sounds so lovely on the surface, turns out to be a place where people are made into artificially happy, groveling, sinless robots. Once the veneer of peace and joy is stripped away, it's revealed as just another totalitarian dystopia. Christianity's "big ideas" on the afterlife fall flat. In his article "31 Laws of Fun," philosopher and futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky outlines what a real utopia might look like: it should be a place of liberty and autonomy, of novelty and challenge, of excitement and discovery. It should mess with our environment before taking the huge risk of messing with our core identities. Our experience should be a social one, emotionally involved, continually improving, filled with pleasant surprises, and not overshadowed by superior beings. Heaven fails on almost all of his criteria.

So can we do better here in reality? Can humans provide a more interesting and genuine paradise than the early Christians dreamed up? I think so. How likely we are to create a utopian future is debatable, but it's certainly possible. Sufficient advances in genetics, artificial intelligence, energy production, nanotechnology and space travel could mold our world beyond anything most people have imagined. Such fanciful notions as matrioshka brains, mind uploading and friendly AI could one day become a reality. There's a very good chance that we'll never reach our goal of a future utopia, but what's exciting is that we have the opportunity to try. It starts with education. If we can teach ourselves to think rationally and value the long-term welfare of humanity, many of the obstacles we now face will eventually fade away. A carefully measured combination of science, ethics and critical thinking would pave the way for big ideas that we can truly look forward to.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Born from Above

Born-again Christians generally insist that the Bible is completely accurate, including its accounts of Jesus' life. But as Bart Ehrman explains in his book Jesus, Interrupted, the origin of the very term "born again" shows this belief to be false.

This term originates from a passage in John 3, where Jesus tells a Pharisee named Nicodemus that people can't enter heaven without first being born anothen—that is, born from above. However, in addition to "from above," the Greek word anothen can also mean "again," and this is the sense in which Nicodemus understands Jesus' words. The fact that Nicodemus mistakenly thinks that Jesus means "born again" explains his response:
"How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?"
Had Nicodemus realized that Jesus meant people must be "born from above," he wouldn't have responded this way. He would have understood that Jesus meant a spiritual rebirth rather than a physical one. So what's the problem? Why is this misunderstanding such a big deal? Simple: anothen is a Greek word, but Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking Aramaic. The "again/from above" double meaning doesn't exist in Aramaic, so the sequence of events described in John simply would not have happened.

Could it be that Jesus actually said "born again" in Aramaic, and the writer of John just happened to use a word that also meant "from above"? Nope. The other three times he uses anothen—including once just a few verses later—the "from above" meaning is unambiguous. And Thayer's Lexicon says the word is "often used of things which come from heaven, or from God as dwelling in heaven," which suits this context too perfectly to be a coincidence. So if this conversation took place, Jesus would have used an Aramaic equivalent of "born from above."

So how did Nicodemus manage to misinterpret his words so spectacularly? Well, he didn't. The author of John fabricated the story, not realizing that the double meaning would be impossible in Jesus' native tongue. According to the NET Bible, "the author uses the technique of the 'misunderstood question' often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by...someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant."

To resolve this problem, apologists must argue not only that this well-educated Pharisee was an idiot who couldn't understand that being "born from above" would be a spiritual birth and not a physical reemergence from the womb, but that the translation into Greek created the "again/from above" double meaning purely by chance. I have an alternative for them: stop struggling. Relax. Let it go. Realize that your mental acrobatics are futile, and accept that the Bible is not a reliable record of Jesus' life—or of most other things, for that matter. It may be upsetting at first, but once you've unchained yourself from this ancient book for a while, you'll probably feel a lot better. At least, I do.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Holy Sacrament... of Doom

Communion is the Christian practice of eating a small wafer and a sip of wine or grape juice, which represent the body and blood of Jesus—or which literally are his body and blood, according to Catholic and Orthodox traditions. The ritual is meant as a way of remembering Jesus' sacrifice, although unbelievers often view the idea of eating flesh and drinking blood as bizarre and morbid, metaphorical or not. The church I go to with my parents (since I'm not out as an atheist) holds communion on the first Sunday of each month.

It's scarier than it looks. You'll see.
The pastor at this church takes a particular interest in a certain biblical passage addressing communion:
"Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep." (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)
He emphasized the bolded part above, proclaiming that those who take communion insincerely "eat and drink damnation unto their own soul." As I began to doubt Christianity but continued to take communion, this terrified me. Judgment? Damnation? Did that mean that if I was wrong and Christianity was true, I would go to hell automatically for taking communion while not believing?

On the first Sunday of each month, a private drama played out in one second-row seat of that church. I couldn't just decline the ritual; that would probably be taken by my parents as a sign of doubt. But I also couldn't brush off communion as meaningless, since I still retained that overwhelming fear of eternal torment. So instead I tried to temporarily psych myself into a state of belief for long enough to scarf down the cracker and grape juice. After a while I realized that wasn't going to work, so at one point—I'm not making this up—I surreptitiously pocketed the cracker and poured the sip of grape juice on my hands during the preceding prayer, then pretended to eat and drink. Luckily no one noticed that I smelled like grapes for the remainder of the sermon.

These are the sorts of crazy things that a real fear of hell can make someone do. I still take communion, but it doesn't hold any meaning for me (although last time I was grateful for the grape juice since my throat was a little parched). If this passage means what the pastor implied it does, that only highlights the unbelievable pettiness of a being who would send someone into endless suffering for drinking some juice out of a plastic cup.

By the way, for some reason my pastor never mentioned the final sentence quoted above: "For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep [i.e. die]." Hmm, so taking communion unworthily causes illness and death? That's a very testable claim. Maybe we should try it out. I would bravely put life and limb on the line to volunteer for the unbelieving experimental group. Seriously, though, this idea is as silly and demonstrably false as the Scientologist belief that learning about OT III (the Xenu story) before one is ready could cause pneumonia. Cases like this make me reluctant to treat Christianity as though it's worthy of serious discussion.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Ontological Argument Defeats Christianity

The ontological argument for the existence of God is infamous for two reasons. One is that almost no one finds it very convincing, including theists. The other is that it's surprisingly difficult to pinpoint exactly what's wrong with it. There are dozens of formulations, but here's one that's optimized for clarity and brevity:
  1. God is a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It's greater to exist in reality than only as an idea.
  3. Assume God exists only as an idea. In that case, we can conceive of an even greater being—one that exists in reality—which we can then call God.
  4. Therefore, God must exist in reality.
It's quite a bewildering argument, and I won't concern myself with refutations for now. I just want to show that if this type of argument was sound, Christianity would be false. The easiest way to illustrate this is to repeat the same line of logic with a few words replaced:
  1. SuperSatan (SS) is a being than which nothing worse can be conceived.
  2. It's worse for SS to exist in reality than only as an idea.
  3. Assume SS exists only as an idea. In that case, we can conceive of an even worse being—one that exists in reality—which we can then call SS.
  4. Therefore, SS must exist in reality.
Satan is supposed to be a pretty bad guy, but he's not a maximally evil being, one than which none worse can be conceived. He doesn't have infinite power or knowledge; he's just a fallen angel who's jealous of God's spot on the throne. (In fact, Satan does relatively little in the Bible to qualify for the vilification he receives within Christianity. Just compare God's kill count in the Bible to Satan's to see what I mean.)

Enter my new character: SuperSatan. He's the worst guy imaginable, which includes being all-powerful, all-knowing, and infinitely malevolent. Naturally, it would be worse for SS to exist in reality than as an idea: after all, he can do a lot more damage if he's real than if he's a product of my imagination. The thing is, there's nothing like SS within Christianity. God's power is supposed to be on a level all its own, but if SS were real, he would certainly be giving God a run for his money.

Thus, either Christianity as practiced by pretty much all Christians is false, or the ontological argument is flawed. (Or both, but that's another issue.) If Christians want to continue believing, they can't very well use this argument as a proof of the existence of God.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Atheist Ear Candy

In situations where I'm caught without anything else to do, like driving to work or walking to a club meeting, I like to listen to one of several skepticism-related podcasts. I want to give a quick summary of them here.

Not to be confused with a
certain other guide.
The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe is hosted by a panel of skeptics (Steven, Bob and Jay Novella, Rebecca Watson and Evan Bernstein) who discuss primarily science-related topics. Each week they talk about new scientific advances, and developments in the realm of superstition and pseudoscience. Their "Science or Fiction" segment has the panel guessing which of three surprising scientific findings is a fake created by Steven. They also often interview a guest skeptic—sometimes prominent ones like Eugenie Scott or James Randi.

The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets are produced by the Atheist Community of Austin, and while the cast varies, Matt Dillahunty is the linchpin of both shows. They discuss current events and issues related to atheism and religion, and also conduct the occasional interview of a non-believer. The Atheist Experience prominently features viewer calls from Christians and atheists alike. While Matt and the others can sometimes be a bit aggressive when addressing callers, they're always logical and reasonably civil. Their attitude is understandable given the repetitive (and sometimes borderline Poe-like) arguments that the religious callers tend to offer.

The Thinking Atheist is hosted by Seth, an atheist and former Christian radio broadcaster who has the commanding voice to match. Each show is dedicated to a different atheism- or religion-related topic such as cults, creationism or raising a freethinking child. Seth discusses them on his own in a thoughtful opening segment, then later invites listeners to call in. He's quite polite and reasonable, and the callers generally don't get too obnoxious either. The tone of the show is more intimate and relaxed due to the one-man format, which can be a nice break from the others.

Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot is a philosophy podcast in which atheist and rationalist Luke Muehlhauser interviews a prominent thinker, often in a field related to philosophy of religion. The series includes such topics as the resurrection of Jesus, the neuroscience of free will, Alvin Plantinga's reformed epistemology, desire utilitarianism, the explanatory power of theism, and overcoming bias. There's some pretty heavy-duty thinking required for this one and it can get a bit dry at times, but it challenges me in a way the other podcasts don't.

I'm a sucker for pretty logos.
Radiolab is a unique little show that I've just started listening to. Each episode is dedicated to a scientific or philosophical subject like the self, the placebo effect, time, evolution or artificial intelligence. Commentary by hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich is integrated seamlessly with interviews and recordings of experts on the topic at hand, as well as some soothing ambient music. It may be cliché to say this podcast makes learning fun, but that's really the greatest compliment I can bestow. It consistently pursues deep truths while maintaining an offbeat yet accessible feel.

These podcasts are a great source of relaxing entertainment. I don't always have other atheists and skeptics around to talk to, so it's nice to be able to tune in and hear some familiar people discussing the things I care about. It's just one more way that technology allows free expression and a broadening of the marketplace of ideas.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

September & October in Review

It's hard to believe that the year is almost over already, but here we are in November. As I've done four times now, I've made an index and summary of my posts from the last two months. Here are my posts from September:
And from October:
Several pieces of good news from these past couple of months. First, I managed to write a few pretty substantive essays, like these three. I also saw a huge uptick in traffic when John Loftus linked to my essay Why Believers Think Prayer Works from his Debunking Christianity blog. And finally, my sister found out quite accidentally that I'm an atheist, and I was pleasantly surprised at her accepting attitude.

Unfortunately I haven't had time to get very far with the two books I've been reading. I hope to dig into them more deeply before 2011 is out.