Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Brief Thoughts After Watching Life of Pi

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Life of PiOver the weekend, I watched the movie, Life of Pi. I liked it, though it was very sad. I really hadn't known much about the story beforehand, so I didn't realize that there would be so much discussion of religion. Honestly, I didn't think there was anything truly profound about the religious discussions - I thought it was just a part of the story. Perhaps the book was different, or perhaps I missed it, but apparently, the religious aspect was a big part of the story. One critic, Brian Bethune, called the book a "head-scratching combination of dense religious allegory, zoological lore and enthralling adventure tale, written with warmth and grace". Even President Obama said, "It is a lovely book -- an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling."

Now, I'm not completely blind to the religious themes in the movie. In fact, I think it nailed one aspect of religion particularly well, if not necessarily intentionally. [Warning - here come the spoilers]. Pi told two different stories of how he survived on the lifeboat. The first was the fantastic tale that took up most of the movie, where Pi had to share the lifeboat with the Tiger, Richard Parker, and had many improbable experiences. The second was a harsh story of survival, where the ship's cook killed two other people on the lifeboat, and Pi killed him in revenge to be the sole survivor of the ship's sinking. After telling the writer these two different stories, Pi asked him which story he preferred, and the writer chose the story with the tiger. Pi replied, "And so it is with God."

Accepting one story means embracing reality for what it is, no matter what the consequences or how it makes you feel. Accepting the other story means closing your mind to reality, and picking the story that makes you feel better. "And so it is with God" indeed.

To tell the truth, I'm not sure I'm taking away the same message as what was intended. I think the story was supposed to be more ambiguous, and seen in an almost post-modernist light. That is, how can we tell what's true exactly, so why not pick the story that we prefer? Obviously, I disagree with that mindset. Of course, there are limitations to our knowledge - things we don't or even can't know for certain. But there is only one reality. We can't pretend that our limitations in discerning reality mean that we can pretend reality is whatever we want it to be. Our goal should be to narrow those limitations as far as we can, to get our understanding as close to reality as possible.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

War on Christmas 2012

Santa in the CrosshairsThe Christmas season is upon us, which means it's time for us Scrooges to ramp up the war. To tell the truth, after skimming through some of my older entries, I don't have anything new to add. The 'War on Christmas' is a bit silly, considering how Christmas has been treated in this country in the past. The Puritans even outlawed it's celebration (see the first link below). Personally, I'm going to decorate the house, put up a tree, give presents, and just about every other tradition associated with this time of year other than go to church.

Some of the Christmas entries I've written in the past are pretty good. I especially recommend the first three below for information content, and the fourth if you want to support a good cause.

My previous War on Christmas posts:

And of course, other people have created very interesting content in regards to Christmas and the 'war' upon it. Most of the links below are humorous, but the first is a serious look at the Salvation Army, and one more reason why I have trouble supporting that organization despite the good they do in other areas. Though as I wrote previously, if the only way you'd donate at all is by dropping pocket change into the Salvation Army's kettles, then do it. I don't donate to them personally, but I compensate by donating more to other charities.

Related Links to Other Sites:

And to continue with what is now a tradition on this blog, here is a YouTube video of Tim Minchin singing his Christmas song, White Wine in the Sun. And if you missed my previous entry, Buy White Wine in the Sun, Support Autism Society, then let me repeat that if you go and buy the song this month, the proceeds will go to supporting the National Autistic Society.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Friday Bible Blogging - Introduction and Picking a Translation

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. To browse all entries in the series, go to the category, Friday Bible Blogging.

BibleWhen I was younger and still a committed Christian, I read the entire Bible. I would say cover to cover, but it was actually two different books. The first was a nice leather bound Good News Translation that I'd received as a Christmas present. A few Christmases later and partway through, I received a new Bible as a Christmas present, this time a New Living Translation sold as a TouchPoint Bible. So I switched. At the time, I still accepted the Bible as the inerrant word of God, which I'm sure colored the way I read it. Now that I no longer think of the Bible as a divinely inspired book, I thought it might be interesting to read it again and see what type of impression it makes on me now.

So, I'm starting a new series - Friday Bible Blogging. I'm going to try to read a couple verses a day, and then every Friday I'll write a short blog entry on my impressions. Don't look for deep theological discussions here. I fear that if I try to get too technical, I'll get bogged down in details and stall out on the project. From my first time reading the Bible, and from my recent reading of The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, I know that the Bible can be boring enough. The pressure of writing weekly blog entries should keep me motivated enough to get through the whole thing, but detailed entries might be overwhelming.

I'll note one way I'm going to approach this differently than the first time I read the Bible. Back then, when I believed that the Bible was the divinely inspired word of God, it followed that every word in it must have been important. So when I say I read the whole thing, I mean the whole thing. No skimming over the A begat B begat C... sections. If a person's name was in there, it must have been because God thought that name was important enough to include, so who was I to ignore it? Now, I don't have that kind of devotion, so I admit up front that I'm going to skim through the genealogies and other similarly boring insubstantial sections.

When I read the Bible the first time, I didn't yet appreciate the importance of the translation. Now that I've learned a bit more, I've come to realize that the translation can have a significant effect on the meaning. I've discussed this before on this blog in the entry, Reliance on Bible Translations. It's a pretty complicated issue. Without being able to understand ancient Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, most of us are reliant on translators giving us accurate translations. Unfortunately, not all translations are of the same caliber.

First of all, there's the issue of what to translate to begin with. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we no longer have any of the original versions of any books of the Bible. In fact, for some books, even if we had a time machine, it would be difficult to pick an original version. For example, just go read the Wikipedia section on the Origins of the Book of Genesis to see how that book developed. And this doesn't even concern the origins of the stories themselves, such as Noah's flood being a variation of the Mesopotamian Flood Myth. For all of the books, there are numerous copies in existence, and none of the copies match exactly. So the translators will have to decide on how to combine all the different copies to come up with a text that most closely resembles the 'original'.

But then, even once a text is agreed upon to translate, there's the question of how to accomplish the translation. Languages are not the same as math. They're imprecise, with ambiguities and nuance, double meanings and puns. And different languages have their own nuances. Anyone who's bilingual has known the difficulty of trying to translate directly from one language to another. Sometimes it's easy enough, but other times it's simply impossible to translate the full meaning of a statement without adding some side explanation*.

And then, unfortunately, there's the motivation of the translators. For something with as much cultural impact as the Bible, people are going to approach it with different preconceptions. And sometimes, people will let those preconceptions cloud their interpretation. A cautionary example is the New International Version (NIV). It was a project of evangelical Christians who had already decided that the Bible was inerrant. The blog entry I linked to above includes an example of that translation changing the meaning of a passage to avoid a contradiction, and it's not the only one. To quote N.T. Wright (source - Wikipedia):

When the New International Version was published in 1980, I was one of those who hailed it with delight. I believed its own claim about itself, that it was determined to translate exactly what was there, and inject no extra paraphrasing or interpretative glosses.... Disillusionment set in over the next two years, as I lectured verse by verse through several of Paul's letters, not least Galatians and Romans. Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said.... [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about.

I should probably mention the King James Version (KJV) specifically, since it is the most famous of all English translations. Unfortunately, it has many problems. There were not as many early manuscripts available at the time it was translated, so it's not a translation of the current best guess of the 'original' versions of all of the books. Some sections were translated incorrectly. And it's written in an archaic form of English that makes it more difficult for the modern reader to understand. So I decided against reading the KJV.

So, what translation should I choose? It seems as if there are even more opinions on this than there are translations themselves, but there does seem to be one translation recommended more than others by serious biblical scholars**, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). I've read and respect Bart Ehrman***, and according to the Endorsements section of the NRSV, he has said, "In my opinion, the New Revised Standard Version is without peer as the best available Bible translation, for both readability and accuracy." Here's a page I found, A Discussion of Bible Translations and Biblical Scholarship, written by a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, Mark D. Given, which also highly recommends the NRSV. I looked for a recommendation from Hector Avalos, since I've read and respect him as well. I couldn't find a direct recommendation, but I did find this article written by him, Can Science Prove that Prayer Works?, in which all Bible quotes were from the NRSV, a kind of implicit recommendation. And of course, Bruce Metzger, who was intimately involved in the creation of the NRSV, recommended it.

So, I've decided to read the New Revised Standard Version. Unfortunately, it's not included at, an otherwise excellent resource for the various Bible translations, but it is available online for those who want to follow along. I recommend the GodWeb link, which provides links to all of the chapters hosted on oremus.

So how long is this going to take? According to a few sources, there are 1189 chapters in the Protestant version of the Bible, or 1334 in the Catholic version. If I go with the longer version for the sake of completeness, and if I can average 10 chapters per week, that's 133 weeks, or a little over 2 ½ years. I think that's manageable. 10 chapters per week is few enough that I'll still be able to read more enjoyable books during that period, and also few enough that my weekly blog entries won't be overwhelming. It does mean 133 blog entries, so I'm going to make a new category for this series, Friday Bible Blogging.

I'm also going to make an index page to provide links to all of the entries in this series, to allow users to jump to reviews of different sections of the Bible.

Stay tuned for my first review entry, starting from the beginning with Genesis, Chapter 1.

*Here's an example of translation issues. One of my favorite corny jokes in Spanish goes like this.

¿Que dijo el agua al pez?


The first sentence is easy enough to translate - 'What did the water say to the fish?' But the answer is a double entendre. 'Nada' can mean either 'nothing' or 'swim'. Yes, it's corny, but it illustrates the difficulty in trying to make a simple translation without a little extra explanatory text. This example was only a small note, but even small notes can add up to a big distraction when there are enough of them.

**Of course, most serious Biblical scholars say that the best way to understand the Bible is to learn the ancient languages and read the various ancient manuscripts, and to basically do all the things that Biblical scholars do.

***Which is not to say that I agree with all of Ehrman's positions. His position on the historicity of Jesus doesn't appear to be very well founded. See Richard Carrier's, Ehrman on Jesus: A Failure of Facts and Logic. Well, I've found a different article that sways me to think Jesus's existence was more likely than not: Quora: Do credible historians agree that the man named Jesus, who the Christian Bible speaks of, walked the earth and was put to death on a cross by Pilate, Roman governor of Judea?, Tim O'Neill.

Update 2013-03-22: I was double checking the chapter counts for myself instead of relying on other people's counts, and I found that it gets to be a bit complicated once you get to the Apocrypha. It depends on how you're going to do the tally. For example, take a look at this page on Oremus, Additions to Esther 11. How should that be tallied? For the purpose of this series, since I'm going through chapter by chapter in the Oremus Bible Browser, I figure it makes sense to use their divisions to count chapters. For example, that means the link I just provided would be counted as a single chapter. That means 929 chapters in the standard Old Testament, 203 chapters in the Apocrypha, and 260 chapters in the New Testament, for a total of 1392 chapters. So, it will take me about 2 months longer to complete this project than I'd initially anticipated.

Updated 2012-10-18: Fixed a few typos, corrected a few links, and revised a few sections to make them more clear, but nothing that altered the meaning of any of the sections.

Updated 2013-02-11: Fixed a couple more types that I just noticed.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Musings on Existence

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIn a previous essay, Further Musings on the Soul (blog version), I laid out a brief explanation of why I do not think people have souls. To give an even briefer summary, as we learn more through neuroscience, it becomes more and more apparent that our personalities and memories are controlled by the material processes of our brains. Given that, it calls into question the function of souls if they were to exist, but combined with the complete lack of evidence for souls, it just seems most parsimonious to assume that we are material beings, and that our brains define our sense of self.

But, consciousness, the sensation of experience, has to come from somewhere. To me, since I don't see anywhere else for it to come from, it seems most likely that it comes from the atoms that make up our brains. It's not a single coherent soul in the classical sense, but a bunch of small bits all contributing. As far as we can tell, it relies on a functioning brain to work. So when we eventually die, our consciousness will end, but those atoms will go back out into the ecosystem, and many will probably find their way into new organisms. So, the sensation of experience might come again. That's not really entirely comforting since it won't exactly be 'me' anymore, with all the memories and personality quirks that define me, but it is, in a way, a type of continued existence*. Looking backwards, it also means that the atoms currently making up me have already experienced countless lives. I can't know what those lives were like, but it is intriguing.

On a related note, I wonder just how arbitrary are the processes in our brain that define our subjective experiences. For example, dopamine is a well known neurotransmitter involved in a sense of reward**. Our brain releases it to make us feel happy. But why dopamine? Why that particular chemical? Was it just arbitrary, a chance product of evolution? Would any chemical have fit the bill, so long as other parts of the body evolved to react appropriately? Or is there something about the structure of dopamine that makes it a 'happy' molecule? If the actual structure of molecules does affect our subjective experience, then of course natural selection would have favored molecules that performed those roles better. It sounds obvious, but we like being happy, and we dislike being sad.

And while this discussion may seem trivial, I think we're approaching a point in the not too distant future where it might be a discussion worth having. We're getting closer and closer to creating artificial life, both biological (see Craig Venter) and mechanical (i.e. Artificial Intelligence). We're still a long ways off from creating anything sentient, but it's not outside the realm of possibility that some day we might. And as the creators of sentience, we would be responsible for the emotions that entity experienced. How cruel it would be to create a consciousness that experienced nothing but pain and distress, even if outwardly it smiled the whole time.

I know this might seem a bit more mystical than what I normally write about. But I am still an atheist and a materialist. I don't think there's anything magical going on here. It's just that consciousness happens to be a property of matter. It doesn't have a memory. Homeopathy is still rubbish. We can't relive past lives, because the memories were coded in the brain and disappeared when the brain decayed. But when we die, there may be more to it than simply becoming worm food. A part of us may actually become the worm, which may then become part of a bird, and then a cat, and on and on. I will lose my identity, but it's interesting to think of myself as a part of this great web of experience.

*This is also a selfish reason why I think it's best to strive to improve the world. Sometime down the road, the atoms currently making up me might feel the repercussions of my actions.

**Whenever I talk of dopamine, I'm reminded of an experience I had in middle school health class. It was during a lecture on drugs (and recall that this was during the era of 'Just say no'). Our teacher, Mr. Tinney, told us that dopamine was the chemical responsible for making us happy. He said that when somebody won the lottery, about a pin head's worth of dopamine was released into the brain. But when somebody took cocaine, drops and drops of dopamine were released, like taking a soaked sponge and wringing it out. When he explained it that way, it made cocaine positively tempting, to think that a drug could make you that happy. I don't think he really accomplished what he set out to do with that lecture. (For the record, I've never tried cocaine, though thanks to Mr. Tinney's lecture, I think I might try it if I'm ever terminally ill with no hope of recovery.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Old Testament - It's a Bit Strange

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThe longer and longer I'm outside of Christianity, the more and more absurd it all appears. A friend of mine directed me to the following article the other day: 11 Things The Bible Bans, But You Do Anyway. It's what has become a somewhat typical list of some of the rules given in the Old Testament (OT) that are no longer followed by Christians, as a response to Christian cherry-picking of OT rules to condemn practices they don't like. Several Christians left comments to that article explaining that Christians were no longer obligated to follow OT rules because of the New Covenant with Christ.

On a certain level, I'm glad that Christians use this New Covenant rationalization. When you read the rules from the OT, some are truly horrendous. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18-21, which explains that "stubborn and rebellious" sons should be stoned to death, or Exodus 21:20-21, which explains how it's okay for someone to beat their slave since the slave is their property (they just shouldn't kill the slave), or Deuteronomy 22:20-21, which decrees death by stoning for girls not being virgins, or from that same chapter, verse 28, which describes a woman as a piece of property that a man can buy from her father. I could go on, but that's not the point of this essay. I'm glad that most Christians recognize these rules as immoral, and try to distance themselves from them with the New Covenant (in the modern industrialized world, at least - witch hunts are still tragically common in some parts of the world in accordance with Exodus, 22:18 or Leviticus, 20:27).

But invoking the New Covenant leaves a major issue unresolved - what type of a god would have created those horrendous rules to begin with? They're certainly not representative of a loving, forgiving god like most Christians profess to believe in.

I've seen various rationalizations from Christians for why OT rules were so much different than the New Covenant. One of the more common, ignoring the barbaric commandments and focusing on dietary rules, is that they were for the benefit of primitive people that didn't have as complete an understanding of the world as we do today. Here's one such example, The Dietary Law Today. The first objection is that these rules weren't as beneficial as some people would like to believe. Sure, pork can be contaminated with trichonosis, but meat from 'clean' animals can also be infected with parasites, and even a head of lettuce can be infected with E. coli. The risk is not so much in the specific types of food, but in the preparation. A better guidebook would have given directions to properly clean and cook food.

A bigger problem with the above rationalization, and with several other rationalizations concerning the OT that I'm not going to discuss here, is when you look at it in a larger context. Barring what some fundamentalists might say, the Earth is a few billion years old, and humans have been around for a hundred thousand years or so. The various books of the OT were only written on the order of a few thousand years ago (give or take for the different books). And the Hebrews certainly weren't the only people living at the time. So out of all the peoples that have lived over the millenia, God supposedly revealed himself to one small group, and gave them rules that applied only to them, but that none of the surrounding societies adopted. Obviously, given the successes of Egypt and Rome, it's not as if OT rules gave the Hebrews any earthly advantages over other peoples. It's not as if Romans were dying from food poisoning at much higher rates than Jews, allowing the Jews to conquer the Romans. And then, just a few thousand years after dictating all these specific but seemingly arbitrary rules, God just comes along and says that they're not important anymore. And by the way, all you Gentiles that never followed the rules to begin with, you can now become Christians and get into heaven, too.

So, the Old Testament just really seems strange. Aside from the utter immorality of the rules, it just seems so bizarre that a god would impose those types of rules for such a short period of human history, isolated to such a small group of people, only to later say that they didn't apply anymore.


Selling Out