Skepticism, Religion Archive

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Exploration Day 2014

This is a verbatim reprint of last year's entry, but it's still all relevant. I guess I'll add here that if you don't like the idea of Exploration Day or Bartolomé Day, you can always call today Indigenous People's Day. Just whatever you do, don't celebrate that horrible excuse for a human being, Christopher Columbus.

Moon PrintToday is traditionally celebrated as Columbus Day, but Columbus really was a horrible excuse for a human being. It's not just the myth about him proving the world was round, or lucking into finding a continent that nobody knew existed, but his horrible, horrible treatment of the natives and even the Spaniards in the first Spanish colony in the Americas.

The Oatmeal has a new webcomic explaining just how bad of a person Columbus was, in more detail than I've done and in a more entertaining way than I could do. I highly recommend going to read it:

The Oatmeal - Christopher Columbus was awful (but this other guy was not) Modified Portion of The Oatmeal's Christopher Columbus Comic

While the Oatmeal proposes changing the holiday to Bartolome Day, I prefer a proposal I read before, changing it to Exploration Day. I could simply link to that old entry, but if you're here already reading this, I'll save you the click. Below is an excerpt of the main portion of that old entry, Happy Exploration Day:

I've written briefly about Columbus a couple times before, Debunking a Columbus Myth and Columbus Day. There are a lot of misconceptions about Columbus and his role in history - misconceptions that are still being taught to my middle school daughter, by the way. In reality, he was a bit of a crank. The concept of the Earth being a globe had been known for thousands of years prior to Columbus. In fact, Eratosthenes had calculated the size of the earth to a very accurate degree back around 240 BC (or BCE). Why Columbus had such a hard time securing funding for his trip was that he was so far off in his estimate of the size of the Earth - 15,700 miles in circumference vs the true 25,000 miles. Educated people knew that in theory, you'd eventually end up in Asia by sailing west, but they didn't think any of the ships of the time would allow someone to carry enough supplies to complete the journey. And they were right. Had there not been two unknown continents, Columbus and his men would have starved to death. And Columbus never did figure out that he'd discovered a new continent. He went to his dying day thinking he'd found islands off the coast of Asia.

And if his technical incompetence weren't enough, Columbus was a pretty ruthless governor. To quote an article from The Guardian:

As governor and viceroy of the Indies, Columbus imposed iron discipline on the first Spanish colony in the Americas, in what is now the Caribbean country of Dominican Republic. Punishments included cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery.

His actions were so bad that he was arrested and taken back to Spain in shackles. He later received a pardon from the crown, but only after a new governor was put in charge of the colony.

Granted, Columbus was important historically. His unintended discovery of the New World set off a wave of European exploration that changed the course of history. But why do we have a holiday celebrating this tyrant who only lucked his way into the history books instead of starving at sea?

If what we truly want to celebrate on this day is the spirit of exploration, then why not just come out and make that the focus of the holiday? Make a day that honors those like Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, Armstrong and Aldrin, the Wrights, Amundsen, Hillary, Cousteau, the engineers behind the Mars rover. Make a day that honors all those that push the frontiers of our knowledge.

More Info:

I'll note that after I shared some of that information with my wife and daughter, we began using 'Christopher Columbus' as a profanity in place of a certain orifice that everybody has. e.g. Bill O'Reilly can be a bit of a Christopher Columbus when he starts yelling at his guests. I think that's the most appropriate way to remember his legacy.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Does Religion Really Answer the Tough Questions?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismA recent post by Jerry Coyne, Accommodatheism #2: More gratuitous atheist-bashing in an mainstream article on the Creation Museum, called attention to a magazine article, that while good overall, had a kind of jarring passage in the center that was only tangentially related to the rest of the article. As Coyne puts it, it was "a superfluous insertion in an otherwise good piece, a gratuitous solipsism meant only to establish the author's status as 'not one of those damn atheists.' "

The article in question is Were There Dinosaurs on Noah's Ark?, by Jeffrey Goldberg. It is a fairly good critique of Ken Ham's Creation Museum in Kentucky, and the world-view that guides Answers in Genesis and similar evangelical Christians. However, there was one passage that just didn't belong, quoted below.

My sympathies, by the way, do not lie entirely where you might think. I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons ("Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity ... of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?"), and because, in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that "answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?" Like Ken Ham, I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

It's not just Goldberg who says or writes things like this. I hear sentiments like this all the time, so I think it's worth a substantive response. There are so many objectionable aspects worked into that short paragraph. I'll just work through them sequentially.

I find atheism dismaying, for Updikean reasons ("Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity ... of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we're dead we're dead?")...

Reality doesn't care one lick whether you're dismayed or not. Reality doesn't care, period. Reality is what it is. This objection about atheism being 'dismaying' is merely an argument from consequences. I've used this example before, but I certainly find the Holocaust 'dismaying', to say the least, but I don't doubt that it occurred because of that. As a mature adult, you just have to face up to reality, no matter what the consequences.

Let me parse this statement a little further - "the universe just happened to happen". First of all, no one's really yet sure where the universe came from. Evidence so far points to the Big Bang, but anything before that, if there even was anything, is still conjecture. So, no one can even say "the universe just happened to happen", since no one's really sure where the universe came from in the first place. But the bigger question I think Goldberg is getting at is why there's something rather than nothing, because even if we were to discover what caused the Big Bang, the question would just shift to where that cause came from. But in this sense, how does religion add anything? It's just postulating one possible cause. Even if it were true that Yahweh created the entire universe ex nihlo, the question then shifts to what created Yahweh. And if the religionist's answer is 'Yahweh just happened to happen', then how is that any more satisfying than Goldberg's objection to atheism?

On to the next part of that statement - "when we're dead we're dead". I've actually given this a lot of thought (usually when I'm occupied with mindless chores like raking leaves). If consciousness is an emergent property of matter, as seems to be the most likely scenario, it's still the case that no one really understands how it all comes about. What if you were to take a person's brain, throw it into a blender, use a Star Trek replicator to reconstruct all that raw material into an exact copy of what the brain was like previously, stick it back into the person's skull, and revive them? Would the experience of sensation be the same as before? Would it be a different sense of self, but acting just like the original person? Does it depend on getting the duplication exactly the same as before atom for atom, or does it only matter if the same elements get put in the same places (carbon atom here, oxygen atom here, etc.)? What if you reconstruct the brain differently to match somebody else's brain? Is it the same sensation of experience but with a different personality and memories? Of course, this thought experiment is a little unrealistic in that there's no technology to scan or reconstruct a brain in that level of detail, nor revive a person after such a procedure, but moving on to something real, what happens after a person dies and decomposes, and those atoms in their brain get incorporated into the brains of new organisms? Is this in any way a continuation of the previous consciousness, even though the personality and memories would be entirely different? (BTW, I've coined this concept as 'materialistic reincarnation' in my own head. I'd be interested if anyone knows of a better term or of people who have already gone down this thought path.) Just because most atheists don't believe in souls doesn't mean we don't give any thought to questions like this.

in the words of a former chief rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, it is religion, not science, that "answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?"

This is a false dichotomy. Even if science can't answer those questions subjectively like Goldberg and many others might like (and it can't since science deals in the objective), why should we automatically assume that religion can answer them adequately?

For one thing, there are many mutually contradictory religions, with their own unique answers to these questions. Since at least some of those religions must necessarily be mistaken, then their answers to Sacks' big three questions could also be mistaken. It does no good to try to answer questions like this when your starting from a false foundation. If Yahweh is only a myth, why worry about his dictates any more than those of Zeus?

But even if any religion were true, it's a stretch to think that they would provide meaningful answers to these questions. As I pointed out above, even if Yahweh created the universe, you're left with the problem of where Yahweh came from in the first place, or why he has the characteristics he has. And if you can't answer that, how can you invoke Yahweh to give more than a superficial answer to the question of 'Why am I here?'

There's a very old philosophical point that illustrates the problem with this, the Euthypro Dilemma. It was posed by Plato in Classical Greece, back in the first century BCE, "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?" This is usually brought up in relation to morality, and illustrates the inadequacy of ideas such as Divine Command Theory. Following a god's commands is merely obedience, not true morality. Even if a god was real, that only tells you how to act to avoid the god's judgement, not how to be moral.

Like I said up above, limiting your choices to science and religion in this discussion is a false dichotomy. There's another human endeavor with contributions to the topic - philosophy. Try reading about secular humanism for a way to live ethically and morally without relying on religion.

...I am appalled by the idea, as expressed by Richard Dawkins, that "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Similar to the first statement I critiqued, this is another argument from consequences. Being appalled by an indifferent universe doesn't mean the universe will suddenly start caring about you.

Conversely, now that I've become an atheist, I find this view of the universe more appealing than a theistic view (not that this is a reason to be an atheist, or else I'd be just as guilty of arguing from consequences). If you consider the problem of evil, and all the bad things that happen to good people, it makes you wonder about the nature of any supposed god. I mean, just look at the Ebola outbreak going on right now, and all the suffering it's causing. Understanding that it's a random occurence, and that the people being afflicted are just victims of bad luck, is much easier to take than thinking that some god is letting it all happen, or worse, causing it, and choosing which particular people are in for the worst suffering. And if you consider the Bible to be an accurate portrayal of Yahweh, with both the Old Testament atrocities and the New Testament invention of Hell, then a universe of 'pitiless indifference' is much more comforting than one being ruled by such a petty, vindictive, capricious and cruel being with limitless power.


Overall, Goldberg's article was good. But that one particular paragraph was horrible. It was basically one big argument from consequences, but without really thinking through the consequences as applied to religion. There are tough philosophical questions that we all try to deal with, but there's no reason to assume that religion can answer them.

More Info:

I've dealt with many of these issues previously, so if you're interested, you can read more of my thoughts through the links below. Yes, some of what I wrote here is similar to what I've written in the past, but I just couldn't help myself.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Air Force Oath Follow-Up

U.S. Air Force LogoWell, I have some good news to report, as a follow-up to an entry I'd written last week, Air Force Makes Religious Oath Mandatory. The short background is that the Air Force had changed their official policy. Previously, a religious section of the enlistment/re-enlistment oath, "So help my God", was optional. No one was forced to say it who didn't want to. Just recently, they reversed that decision, and tried to make that portion of the oath mandatory again. After a complaint brought about by an enlisted airman, and the threat of legal action by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, the Air Force went to the DoD's legal team for advice.

Apparently, either the DoD was the voice of reason, or someone in the Air Force came to their senses, because the oath has been made optional again (see story: Air Force: 'So Help Me God' in Oath is Optional).

I really don't see how this was much of a controversy at all. The requirement was clearly un-Constitutional, going against Article VI's ban of religious tests. And even if the Constitution had no such ban, that type of language in the oath still makes no sense. America is a multi-cultural society with people with all types of religious beliefs, from Christians to atheists* to Buddhists to Hindus. It's really only Christians and Jews who refer to 'God' with a capital G, so that part of the oath is very clearly a pledge to Yahweh. For the many people who don't believe in that god, forcing them to make an oath to him is lying - a tacit admission of his existence. Shouldn't we expect more integrity from the members of our military? Even at best, it makes that party of the oath an empty phrase, recited as a platitude that means nothing to the people saying it. In my opinion, that cheapens the oath overall, and I don't think that's what anyone wants.

Like I noted in that previous entry, if you really want to despair for our nation, go read the comments in the linked article. Here are a few from this one.

Yet another monumentally stupid decision by someone who shouldn't be making decisions, we take God our of our lives more and more and as this is done things get worse and worse. He whosoever denies me shall be denied before the father. If the military denies God then in the future you will lose and then you will all have to change the way you salute each other. Just wait till they make it mandatory to allow call to prayer 5 times a day. Apparently the Air Force Never heard of the phrase Stand Your Ground
Personally I don't trust anyone who refuses to end the oath, 'so help me God.' But that's just me.
Cowards all. Why not also make fighting and uniforms optional?
This shows an act of cowardess the part of the Air Force. My respect for them is down as this appears to be another act of appeasement on their part. Tolerance in this area will lead to tolerance in all other areas and the Good order and Discipline will go out of the window. The AF needs to get up some guts and so does their legal department at the national level.

On the plus side, many of those types of comments had responses from rational people, so it wasn't completely one-sided. It just amazes me that so many people have a problem with making optional a religious section of an oath for a non-religious organization. I don't even know what it's doing there in the first place, and look forward to the day when it gets removed completely.

For now, the voices of reason have a small win, and airmen and officers won't be forced to appeal to a deity they don't believe in.


*Yes, I know - atheism isn't a religion. But these types of beliefs are mutually exclusive. You can't be an atheist Christian (at least, not in the traditional christian sense of accepting Jesus as your savior). So, I think it's fair to characterize them all under the blanket term of religious beliefs. Or to put it another way, not stamp collecting may not be a hobby, but the label does tell you something, even if only a very little, about the person's hobby habits.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Friday Bible Blogging - Center Verse of the Bible

This entry is part of a series. For a listing of all entries in the series, go to the Index. Unless otherwise noted, all Bible quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). All headings are links to those Bible chapters.

BibleThis week, you get a bonus Friday Bible Blogging entry in the middle of the week. The main entry that I'll post on Friday covers Psalms 111 through 120, but it brings me to a slightly controversial milestone of sorts that I decided was worth covering in its own entry - the central verse of the Bible.

Right off the bat is trying to determine which manuscripts to use as your basis. As I discussed in the Introduction to this series, the development of the Bible wasn't straight forward. For many books, it would be difficult to pin down the 'original' version, even if time travel were possible, because of how those books developed. They were based on combining already existing books, which themselves were often based on even older stories, with Noah's flood developing from the Mesopotamian Flood Myth being one of the most famous examples. And as the books were passed down and copied, changes, additions, and subtractions were made. Even the New Testament, which is much more recent than some of the Old Testament books, has been modified. I was disappointed to discover that the story of Jesus telling the Pharisees to "let him who is without sin, cast the first stone" was most likely a later addition to John, and not part of the original gospel.

Even in the modern day, when most churches have settled on their canon, there are many different compilations of the Bible. The Wikipedia article on Biblical Canon has a table showing the differences in canon between Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Slavonic Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Syriac Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Orthodox Tewahedo, and Assyrian Church of the East versions of the Bible. There just simply is no single 'The Bible', so there's no single central verse.

And on top of all that, the chapter and verse numbers certainly weren't part of the original manuscripts. To quote from Wikipedia's entry on Chapters and verses of the Bible:

Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro is often given credit for first dividing the Latin Vulgate into chapters in the real sense, but it is the arrangement of his contemporary and fellow cardinal Stephen Langton who in 1205 created the chapter divisions which are used today. They were then inserted into Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 15th century. Robert Estienne (Robert Stephanus) was the first to number the verses within each chapter, his verse numbers entering printed editions in 1551 (New Testament) and 1571 (Hebrew Bible).

The chapters and verses weren't settled on until the 1500s.

Moving past all that, let's pick one version to go with, since that's the version I see used in practically all of these Biblical factoid type articles - the standard Protestant Bible. If you do a google search on 'center verse of the bible', you'll find many sites claiming that the central verse is Psalms 118:8. Here's an example of such a site, Fun Bible Facts for Christian Teens: Get Centered with Psalms 118. I've pulled a fairly extensive quote below, to show how they arrive at that conclusion, and the other types of claims these sorts of sites typically make.

Location, Location, Location
  • The middle chapter of the Bible is Psalm 118.
  • The longest Chapter of the Bible is Psalm 119.
  • The shortest chapter of the Bible is Psalm 117.

Adding It All Up

  • How many chapters exist before Psalm 118? 594
  • How many chapters of the Bible exist after Psalm 118? 594
  • Add the two together and you get 1188.
  • What is the verse at the very center of the Bible? Psalm 118:8*

Get Centered

Psalm 118:8 - "It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man." (NIV)

Are you in the center of God's word? The very center of the Bible reminds us to trust in God over trusting in ourselves or other people. The next time you consider making God the center of your life, remind yourself to go to the center of the Word.

As part of this whole project of reading the Bible, I have a spreadsheet with the chapter count for each of the books. For the Protestant Bible, I count 1189 chapters - which matches the fun facts claims so far. And 1189 chapters total does mean 594 chapters before and after the middle chapter. However, since there are 478 chapters in all the books prior to Psalms, 594 - 478 = 116, meaning that the following chapter, 117, is the central chapter of the Bible, not 118. And if the central chapter is 117, then all the rest of the cute claims don't really mean much. (Interestingly, at the end of that article, the author does note some controversy over which chapter really is the center of the Bible, before dismissing it by saying, "Christians should make God the center of their lives, and numerical controversy should not take away from that spiritual guidance." It's a bit disingenuous to knowingly present something false, and then issue a disclaimer that people may or may not read at the very end of the article. Some people might call that lying, or bearing false witness, to put it in terms that author might appreciate more.)

But that's only one way to determine the central verse of the Bible. A way to do it that makes more sense to me is to add up all the verses in all the chapters, and determine which is the center of the whole thing. I don't have verse counts in my spreadsheet, and don't particularly feel like compiling all that information just for this blog entry, so I'm going to rely on other people's analysis here. I actually found a page where somebody went through this entire exercise, Center of the Bible, by Fran Corpier. Corpier found that there are 31,102 verses in the Bible (as somewhat of a double check, reports the same number). From that, since there can be no single central verse when the total is an even number, Corpier determined that the central verses are Psalms 103:1-2, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, / and all that is within me, / bless his holy name. / Bless the Lord, O my soul, / and do not forget all his benefits..."

Corpier also went so far as to determine the center of the Bible by word count, using the King James Version (KJV). However, I fear that she (he?) must have made a mistake here. Corpier found there were 782,222 words in the KJV of the Bible, and went on to claim that the center two words occur in Psalms 74:21. However, the verse Corpier used to determine those words was Psalms 105:21, not 74:21. So, assuming that Corpier did the math right and just pulled up the wrong quote, the center two words of the KJV of the Bible would be the second and third words in Psalms 74:21, " O let not the oppressed return ashamed: let the poor and needy praise thy name." Hmm. Not particularly noteworthy.

So, to summarize:

  • Center chapter, by chapter count: Psalms 117
  • Center verse, by verse count: Psalms 103:1-2
  • Center words, by word count (KJV): "not the", occurring in Psalms 74:21

So by chapter count, I reached the center of the Protestant Bible this week. However, I'm reading the Apocrypha as well, so I'm still not halfway through with this project.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Air Force Makes Religious Oath Mandatory

U.S. Air Force LogoI just recently wrote an article that referenced the recent Navy Bible brouhaha, A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle. Now, it seems like another branch of the military is violating people's Constitutional rights, and this time in an even more blatant manner.

An article on, Air Force Restores 'God' to Enlistment Oath describes the issue. There's a line in the Air Force oath of enlistment or reenlistment that says "So help me God". It seems that the Air Force had made that line optional, but has now reversed that decision and has made it mandatory again.

The American Humanist Society has gotten involved on behalf of an atheist airman, and it seems that the Air Force might be taking the complaint seriously. According to a more recent article in The Stars and Stripes, Air Force seeks DOD ruling on re-enlistment oath, the Air Force went to the DoD's top lawyer and is currently waiting on an opinion on the issue. I would think the decision should be easy enough to make, since Article VI of the Constitution makes it quite clear:

no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Requiring someone to make an oath to God seems a blatant violation of that clause. And it's not like the previous compromise was hard on theists at all. It wasn't removing the God reference to make the oath secular (which is what I'd really prefer). The 'so help me God' language was optional. Christians and Jews could still say it if they wanted to, while non-theists weren't forced to lie. But apparently, even that was too much for some brass in the Navy, who have made the oath mandatory again.

It seems pretty cut and dried to me, but with the way things sometimes go and the special treatment Christians seem to get in this country, I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to keep the God part of the oath mandatory.

Image Source: Dobbins Air Reserve Base


P.S. If you really want to despair for our nation, go read the comments. Yes, there are several people with rational takes on the issue, but a lot more comments than I'd like to see supporting the mandatory oath. Here's a sampling.

nice to see that someone in the military has finnaly grown a PAIR
Very refreshing to see the US Air Force stand up against political correctness (much of what is wrong with this country) and the courage to stand up for God. God bless America, the foundation of this country.
The enlistment oath is correctly worded ! Deal w/it or don't sign the dotted line! It's that SIMPLE!
He doesn't have to stay in. He can believe in whatever he likes but, he can believe it as a civilian. Sick of all the whiners and liberals that think EVERYTHING should be because they want it. Atheism is stupid anyway. Don't believe in anything. When you die, we can just leave you on top of the ground for the buzzards. Time to pay back all the crap they've dished out to Christians. Notice they have said NOTHING about Islam? Wonder why?!

So as not to end this entry leaving a bad taste in your mouth or thinking that all Christians are so pig-headed, here are a couple good comments.

As a retired Chapel Manager I've got to say the USAF is flying too high on this one. If this Airman doesn't believe in God his oath to God becomes meaningless. It only had value to those who believe in God. It's like forcing a Christian or Muslim to give an oath to a fence post. What value would that promise have?
I'm a fundamentalist Christian but I find it immoral to force someone to in essence lie when taking an oath. In addition, as a conservative constitutionalist who served to support and defend the Constituyion, I also find it offensive to force someone to take recognize a religious tenet in order to serve in the military or any other government position.


Selling Out