Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, January 23, 2009

Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards

TEA LogoMan, this is frustrating. There's been quite a bit of discussion recently over a small phrase in the current Texas science standards, whether to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of scientific theories. I wrote a blog entry specifically about that language, as well as several related entries about the Board of Education (election results, teach 'both' sides, review panel, shenanigans, and Chris Comer). Basically, I considered this a rather small issue - the language has been on the books for over a decade, it doesn't explicitly call for teaching creationsim, and competent teachers are going to teach science well, anyway. The only problem is that it opens a loophole for incompetent teachers to bring up bogus claims.

Well, with as much as people have concentrated on the "strengths and weaknesses" language, it seemed like a victory when the board voted (7-7) to keep the draft standards recommend by the expert panel of scientists and teachers, which instead used the language, "The student is expected to analyze and evaluate scientific explanations using empirical evidence, logical reasoning, and experimental and observational testing". However, that sense of victory was very short lived, when Don McLeroy managed to get language inserted into the standards questioning the very concept of common descent. See Steve Schafersman's post or the Texas Freedom Network's post for more details.

I had sent an e-mail to Gail Lowe hoping to influence her decision as one of her constituents. Unfortunately, I don't think I had any effect, as she was one of the seven on the creationist side in all these votes. I'll keep on writing her for the final vote this March.

For anyone interested, my e-mail is included below the fold.

Continue reading "Texas Board of Education - Bad Results for Science Standards" »

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My Atheism and My Family

I'm an atheist, but I haven't always been one. My "deconversion" was a process that began around 3 1/2 years ago, and took over a year to be more or less complete.

The process began in earnest in an attempt to reconcile the Bible with the actual history of the planet as revealed through geology and biology. I'd just recently learned how many people were creationists (prior to that, I'd naively thought most people accepted evolution and the ancient age of the Earth), and at the time Intelligent Design was making big headlines. It made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian for not taking the Bible at face value. Well, the evidence for evolution and an ancient Earth are so overwhelming that there's really no doubt over them, so I vainly thought I'd be able to write a convincing essay showing how the Bible could be interpreted figuratively and still be accepted as true. However, by the time I'd finished researching the essay, I realized that the Bible couldn't have been divinely inspired. I didn't give up Christianity all at once with that realization, but it was a big first step, and within another year or two, I'd basically become an atheist. Obviously, there was a lot more to the process than just realizing that Genesis wasn't accurate, but that's not the point of this essay, so I won't bore the reader with those details (see here or here for more details, if you're interested).

It was around 6 years ago that I met the woman who was to become my wife. At the time, she was the one having doubts. Since I was still a good Christian then, I did a good job of telling her apologetics and getting her to start going back to church again. I was even the one who insisted that we get married in a church. Consider that it was only a few years later that I so thoroughly reversed my views, and you can imagine that she felt a bit mislead.

This period is also when I took on the responsibility of becoming a father. In fact, once I began having doubts about my religion, this responsibility was one of the main things that drove me to research the issue further - how could I teach my daughter things that I wasn't sure of myself? At first, being a good Christian, there was no question on how to address religion with her - respect everybody's views, but Christianity was the true religion. But once I started having my own doubts, things weren't so easy. I want her to think for herself, and I don't want to indoctrinate her into any particular view like I was into Christianity. So, I'm extremely sensitive to pointing out to her that she's going to have to decide these things for herself. (When I was partway through my deconversion and still considered myself a deist, I wrote about this in a series of e-mails with another non-Christian parent. Some of what I'm writing here I brought up in that essay, but they're still tough issues.)

My daughter goes with one of her friends to her friend's church every Wednesday night - kind of like Sunday school, except, well, on Wednesdays. So in addition to me trying to teach her about various religions, she gets to hear about Christianity from actual believers. The thing is, without that strong pressure from parents to accept Christianity, it's not an easy thing for kids to swallow, especially when they're being raised with a respect for science. I don't mean to say that religion and science are necessarily antithetical - plenty of scientists are religious, and plenty of religious people reconcile their beliefs with what we learn through science - but science teaches you to question everything and look for evidence. In that sense, faith just doesn't cut it.

Perhaps what I worry about with her the most is that she'll say the wrong thing to the wrong person. Kids can be mean (and when it comes down to it, so can adults). With the strong emotions that religion can elicit, I worry how others would react if she were to say that her father was an atheist, or even if she decided that she herself didn't believe in God. To be honest, it was such an incident that got me to write this entry to begin with. At one of her extracurricular activities, she got into an argument with a boy over whether someone had to believe in God to be a good person, and he gave her a hard time until my wife got there at the normal time to pick her up. I don't want my daughter to have to go through things like that. I don't want to live vicariously through her and have her fighting religious battles simply because I'm an atheist. But at the same time, I don't want to lie to her just to make her life easier.

In The God Delusion, one of the points that Richard Dawkins makes is that we shouldn't call children Christian, or Muslim, or atheist, or anything of the sort. Children are still too young to have given these issues enough thought, and we shouldn't classify them based on their parents' beliefs. Oh, if that were only the case! Unfortunately, it seems to me as if freethinkers are about the only ones who think this way, and the religious have no problem applying such classifications. A part of me asks why I have to be so damn sensitive to pointing out everybody else's beliefs, when almost everybody else simply teaches their kids their own beliefs as the truth.

Sometimes, I almost wish that I hadn't started to question religion at all. Things would be so much simpler. I wouldn't have to worry about how people would treat my family if they found out my beliefs. I wouldn't question what worldview to teach my daughter, and fret over whether I was raising her properly (at least on this specific topic - I'm pretty sure parents always fret over their children). I wouldn't have to worry about her being discriminated against for simply repeating something she might overhear me say. I wouldn't feel like I had betrayed my wife.

But now that I have questioned religion, there's no going back. I didn't simply choose to be an atheist. I studied all the evidence I could find, initially in an attempt to become a better Christian, and atheism was the unavoidable conclusion. I could no more choose to go back to being a Christian than I could choose to go back to believing in Santa Claus, or choose to believe that the Earth is flat. I opened Pandora's Box, and it can't be closed again.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Another Similarity Between Osiris & Jesus

OsirisIn my essay, Abadoning Christianity, I briefly discuss some similarities between Osiris and Jesus. I quoted E.A. Wallis Budge, from his introduction to his translation of the Egyptian Book of the Dead (starting on page li),

This is the story of the sufferings and death of Osiris as told by Plutarch. Osiris was the god through whose suffering and death the Egyptians hoped that his body might rise again in some transformed or glorified shape, and to him who had conquered death and had become the king of the other world the Egyptian appealed in prayer for eternal life through his victory and power. In every funeral inscription known to us, from the pyramid texts down to the roughly-written prayers upon coffins of the Roman period, what is done for Osiris is done also for the deceased, the state and condition of Osiris are the state and condition of the deceased; in a word, the deceased is identified with Osiris. If Osiris liveth for ever, the deceased will live for ever; if Osiris dieth, then will the deceased perish.

Later in the XVIIIth, or early in the XIXth dynasty, we find Osiris called 'the king of eternity, the lord of everlastingness, who traverseth millions of years in the duration of his life, the firstborn son of the womb of Nut, begotten of Seb, the prince of gods and men, the god of gods, the king of kings, the lord of lords, the prince of princes, the governor of the world, from the womb of Nut, whose existence is everlasting, Unnefer of many froms and of many attributes, Tmu in Annu, the lord of Akert, the only one, the lord of the land on each side of the celestial Nile.'

In that essay, I wrote, "The first paragraph above, shows the similarity in roles of Osiris and Jesus - that through their resurrection humans can attain eternal life. The second paragraph shows the similarity in how they are addressed in literature, although it would be easy to see how these lofty praises could be addressed to any powerful figure. At any rate, seeing some of the important traits of Jesus in a mythical figure that predates him, does call into question the source of those concepts in Christianity."

Well, I'm currently re-reading The Egyptian Book of the Dead (I meant to be finished before my visit to the King Tut and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs Exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, but it's taking me a bit longer than I'd hoped). I just noticed another similarity between Osiris and Jesus (page cxxxviii).

It is to be noticed how closely the deceased is identified with Osiris, the type of incorruptibility. Osiris takes upon himself "all that is hateful" in the dead : that is, he adopts the burden of his sins; and the dead is purified by the typical sprinkling of water.

So, it's not only through Osiris's resurrection that the Egyptians thought they could attain eternal life, but they even envisioned Osiris as performing a function very similar to forgiving them of their sins.

And now that I'm through with Budge's introduction and actually getting into the Book of the Dead itself, I found an interesting passage right in the first chapter.

Thine enemy[8] is given to the (10) fire, the evil one hath fallen; his arms are bound, and his legs hath Ra taken from him. The children of (11) impotent revolt shall never rise up again.

[8 The enemy of Ra was darkness and night, or any cloud which obscured the light of the sun. The darkness personified was Apep, Nak, etc., and his attendant fiends were the mesu betesh, or 'children of unsuccessful revolt.']

So, here's a passage that sounds suspiciously like Lucifer's unsuccesful revolt from the Bible, and a subsequent banishing into a realm of fire. Although, I have a feeling that revolts against the primary deity are pretty common in mythology.

Just as a note on this, as I wrote in that essay, be careful if you plan to research this subject further. That's probably good advice for anything you plan to research, whether the old fashioned way or on the Internet, but I've found many oversimplified lists of the similarities between Christiany and previous religions that don't seem to be entirely accurate.

For further information, Budge's translation of & introduction to the book of the dead can be found here. Another online version with pictures can be found here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

War on Christmas

Well, let me get all my Scrooge tendencies out of the way now, because I really do enjoy Christmas and don't want to make such a negative post closer to the holiday. By the way, I was planning on making this post even before I saw Eric's recent entry over at The New Minority.

Santa in the CrosshairsEvery year around this time, you seem to get the grumpy old men types complaining about the War on Christmas, or how commercialization is ruining the true meaning of the season. Man, I wish those people could learn a bit of history and see just how silly they sound.

First, they get upset about the semantics of the whole thing, claiming that people aren't saying 'Merry Christmas' in a deliberate attempt to make the holiday more secular. Season's Greetings has been in use since the 19th century. I kind of doubt the secularists have been planning their strategy that long. I remember seeing 'Happy Holidays' on Christmas cards ever since I was a kid, back before 'the War' got started, and always just assumed it was shorter than writing 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' (or you can add in Boxing Day if you're British). A few years ago, in a previous entry, I even mentioned a guy at my wife's work, who caught a bunch of flak from his coworkers for having Christmas cards that said 'Happy Holidays' instead of 'Merry Christmas,' even though the cards had Bible verses on them. Then there are the people that get upset about Xmas. Damn those 11th century monks who thought they could abbreviate 'Christ' with the Greek letter, chi. They probably thought the Chi-Ro was a good symbol for Christ, too.

Do these people even realize where many of our Christmas traditions come from, anyway? First, there's the timing. Don't they think it's a bit suspicious that the holiday falls so close to the Winter Solstice? I realize the gospels don't explicitly state when the nativity story was supposed to have taken place, but shepherds sleeping in the field at night doesn't seem like a great winter activity. And then there are all the Pagan holidays that also fall right around that time, such as Saturnalia from the 17th to to 23rd, or even Mithra's birthday (who was also known as the 'light of the world') on the 25th.

Skipping past the Romans up to the northern Europeans who started many of our Christmas traditions, even the term 'Yule Tide' comes from pagan roots. Yule was originally a late December/early January Germanic/Norse holiday honoring their gods. Odin's Wild Hunt may have even contributed to the legend of Santa Claus making his late night journey. Likewise, Christmas trees, mistletoe, and hanging evergreen clippings & wreaths also seems to be an incorporation of pagan Germanic traditions. (If you want to read what the Bible has to say about decorating a tree in your house, check out Jeremiah 10:1-5.) Many sources even claim, although I'm not sure if this is reliable or merely an urban legend, that in the 4th century, Pope Julius I officially declared Christmas to be on the 25th of December in a deliberate attempt to get pagans to start switching over to Christianity. Whatever the case, whether deliberate or not, it certainly seems that many of our Christmas traditions began as pagan winter solstice traditions.

How about the history of how Christmas has been treated on this continent? The Puritan Pilgrims, who have taken on an almost mythical aspect as the founders of our country, outlawed the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681. Various Christian sects throughout our nation's history (see the same article as linked above) have also refrained from celebrating Christmas. Our founding fathers didn't see fit to declare Christmas a national holiday, and the 1st Congress worked straight through that particular day (as did many subsequent Congresses - in fact, Christmas wasn't declared a national holiday until 1870). Actually, for many of those that did celebrate Christmas, it didn't take on its warm & fuzzy family feel until the late 1800s. Prior to that, many in the U.S. followed a tradition from the Middle Ages of getting drunk and acting raucously. To quote from that article I just linked to, "In the early part of the 19th century, Christmas was, as one historian once noted, 'like a nightmarish cross between Halloween and a particularly violent, rowdy Mardi Gras.' In fact, a massive Christmas riot in 1828 led to the formation of New York City's first police force." Certainly not everyone became a drunken vandal on Christmas, just like not everyone ignored it like the Puritans or some other Protestant groups, but Christmas certainly hasn't been celebrated universally throughout our country's history in the same way it is now.

I also get tired of the persecution complex that the people who buy into the War on Christmas seem to have. Christians make up around 80% of the U.S. population. As far as representation in government, in the 109th Congress, there were 11 senators who didn't identify themselves as Christians (12 if you count Unitarians), and only 30 representatives in the House (32 if you count Unitarians). In other words, over 90% of the elected officials in the federal legislative branch are Christians. You have to go back all the way to Taft to find a president who said, "I do not believe in the divinity of Christ" (though he was still a Unitarian Christian), or all the way back to Lincoln to find a deist president, and it seems absurd to imagine a non-Christian being elected to that office anytime soon. Christians make up a very large segment of the population, and are actually over-represented in government. They are not an oppressed minority.

Okay, with all that out of my system, I just want to be sure to mention that this was not directed at Christians or Christmas in general. It was aimed at the oversensitive vocal minority who seem to think that the First Amendment only applies to people who agree with them (though perhaps that's not as small of a minority as I would like). Personally, I like Christmas. We've decorated all the rooms in the house, put up our Christmas tree, hung our lights outside, given money to the Salvation Army, donated to food drives, bought presents for friends & family, and all the other things that people like to do around this time of year. I even tell people 'Merry Christmas.' I just wish people would quit being so ignorant.

Updated 2008-12-19: In the section on pagan origins, I added everything from the Pope Julius reference to the end of the paragraph. I also made a few minor changes to the section on the history of Christmas in this country, as well as adding the final sentence to that paragraph, just to clarify things. Since I linked to so many other pages in this post, I'll make special mention here of one of those links in particular (which was also pointed out in the comments) - the Slate article was very good, and worth reading even if you don't follow any of the other links.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tough Times, Prayer, and the Ratchet Effect

I originally wrote this several weeks ago, and have been debating whether or not to actually post it. Without going into too much personal detail, I'll say that my friend is recovering well from the stroke. He still has a long road of therapy ahead of him, but he's definitely doing well. So, since tomorrow's Thanksgiving, let me say that I am thankful for all those things that I mention below.

GraceSeveral weeks ago, my wife's cell phone rang at 3:30 in the morning. One of our friends was calling to tell us that her husband (also our friend) was having a stroke, and that she was taking him to the hospital. My wife got dressed to meet her there, while I stayed home to be with our daughter.

There was nothing I could do there at the house, so I thought I'd try to be practical and at least get some sleep. That didn't work at all. I was awake most of the night, and only slept in fits.

While I was laying there awake, I guess my Christian upbringing came out, and I was tempted to pray. After all, when I still believed in God, praying would have seemed like the natural thing to do. It's such a feeling of helplessness - not knowing what happened, or what's going to happen, and only being able to lay there and wait. Well, I have to admit that I did end up praying, but not to a god. No matter how strong the emotional temptation, the rational side of me knew that Yahweh was no more real than Zeus or Thor, and praying to any of those myths would have been equally ineffectual. I figured that if any of the mystical stuff that people believed in were true, the common thread to most religions was that we have souls*. And if souls did exist, then my grandparents would be the souls who were most likely to actually care about and want to help me, so I prayed to them. And, I prayed out loud, because I figured that ghosts probably wouldn't be able to read minds any easier than living people. I did recognize that I was praying more for my own peace of mind than actually hoping anything would come of it, but I figured that it couldn't cause any harm, so what did it matter, anyway. I know it all sounds silly, but that feeling of helplessness is just so strong.

Several hours later, after I dropped my daughter off at school, I headed over to the hospital. Now, I fully expected people to be praying. That's just what religious people do in times like this, and even a former christian turned atheist like me had given in to the temptation. For the most part, it didn't bother me much. Sure, it troubled me a bit on an intellectual level, but there are more important things than trying to be right all the time, and it would have taken a real jerk to argue about such things at a time like that.

But... There was one person that really irritated me - the hospital chaplain. He shouldn't have. He didn't seem like a bad guy, and maybe under different circumstances I would have like him just fine. I was probably irritated with him simply because he was a stranger intruding on us during a troubling time. Anyway, the comment he made that really ticked me off, and made me bite my tongue, was something to the effect of, "Well, it's all in the hands of the Big Surgeon, now." Don't call your myth a surgeon. Don't compare it to the hard working men and women who are doing real good. Don't sit there all smug, and pretend that praying is going to do one damn bit of good. If our friend recovers well from this stroke, I'll thank the fact that his wife was a nurse, recognized immediately the signs of a stroke, and rushed him to the hopsital. I'll thank the doctors and nurses, who spent years going to school to learn how to treat these conditions, and acted quickly and competently when our friend showed up in the ER. I'll thank the researchers, who developed the clot buster drugs that give people now a much better chance of surviving and recovering from strokes. I'll thank the researchers before them, who spent decades and centuries increasing our knowledge, to even know what a stroke is, to give any hope of how to treat it. I'll be thankful that we live in this day and age instead of a couple hundred years ago, when, prayer or no prayer, he wouldn't have had a chance.

This also reminded me of an effect that many people have noticed and commented on before - the ratcheting effect of religion. When good things happen, like our friend's recovery, people are supposed to be thankful to God for all he's done for them. But when bad things happen, like the stroke to begin with, it's all part of his mysterious divine plan, and they're supposed to accept that it must have happened for a good reason.

Well, if prayer's what it takes for people to get through tough times, let them pray. I won't try to stop them, but I won't join in, either. What I will do is continue to visit the hospital to offer my support, to run over meals, to help out with errands and chores in the coming months, and to offer any real help that I can.

* - I've written about souls on this blog before. In short, I really do doubt that we have souls, which is why I recognized I was praying for my own peace of mind more than anything else.


Selling Out