Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, August 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What is the weirdest thing in the bible?

I recently answered the following question on Quora, What is the weirdest thing in the bible?. And while my answer was cribbed from a previous post on this site, since I was pulling out that one story in particular, and changed the wording just a bit, I figured it was worth reposting that Quora answer here.


Well, between a talking donkey, magic box, worldwide flood, animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, etc., there are lots of weird parts of the Bible. But I think my personal favorite is the quail episode from Numbers 11. The story takes place while the Hebrews are wandering the desert for 40 years after the Exodus, and are subsisting mostly on manna, an apparently nutritious but not particularly tasty gift from the Lord. So, the people got a little tired of eating manna day after day and began complaining, wanting some real meat.

The first minorly weird part of the story was Moses's part. He got so frustrated with the complaining that he asked God to either help him or put him to death so that he wouldn't have to deal with it anymore. God's response was to gather up the elders, and "take some of the spirit that is on you [Moses] and put it on them [the elders]", so that they could share his burden, as if Moses's spirit were some measurable quantity that could be divvied up. But the sharing only lasted a night, so it was a rather temporary respite for Moses.

But then, for the really weird part, it was time for God to deal with the complainers. And he did it in the most petty, vindictive, and violent way you can imagine. First, "a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day's journey on this side and a day's journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground" (keep in mind that two cubits is roughly three feet). So God's response was, 'you want meat, I'll give you meat'. But the people apparently decided to make the best of it, cooking up some of the quail to finally have some variety in their diet. Seeing that his punishment wasn't having quite the effect he'd hoped for (which is odd given his supposed omniscience and all), God became even angrier, "while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague." So when his over-reaction of dumping 3 feet of birds on his people didn't have the intended effect, God just went ahead and killed them anyway.

I know there are lots of bizarre stories in the Bible, but there's just something about that story in particular that I find amusing in a black humor sort of way (though it would be terrifying if true and the creator & ruler of the universe were that vindictive).

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Problem of Evil

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism One particular argument that people sometimes use to try to promote atheism is the Problem of Evil. Why would a good god allow such bad things to happen in the world? In fact, it's such a well-worn topic that there's even a name for the field of apologetics that attempts to answer it, Theodicy. And while this argument may make you question what you learned in Sunday School, I've never considered it a very strong argument for atheism, per se*. It just means that if God exists, he's not particularly nice. I mean, if a god created the entire universe and could have done so in any manner it saw fit, it still created a universe in which cancer in children is a thing that actually happens.

The fallback that some fundamentalists use of Adam and Eve and the Fall doesn't help out at all, at least when you take that story literally and not metaphorically. I mean, God just created these two beings, knowing full well what their characters were, and then put the one object that could doom the entire universe right in the middle of the garden where they were living. And these two innocents (because they didn't know right from wrong until after they ate the fruit of the tree) were punished because they were gullible enough to be tricked by a serpent (which God also created). If God really cared that much about his creation, he could have at least put a fence around the tree, or better yet, not even put it in the garden so it couldn't have caused all that trouble to begin with. It's like he was setting them up for failure.

The other most common defense I've seen by Christians is to bring up free will. If God is going to grant us free will, then some people will abuse that freedom to cause evil. But that doesn't explain natural evils like the example I mentioned above of cancer in children. Why create a universe where that's even a possibility? I mean, if we all have souls that are the real us, why even create the universe to function on a physical level with things like DNA that can go awry and cause so much suffering at random?

But the free will explanation is also pretty weak for human caused suffering. If God really is like he's presented in the OT, and took an active role in human affairs, from the Exodus to aiding the Israelites in their conquest / genocide of the Promised Land to, my personal favorite, the quail episode from Numbers, he could certainly have intervened a bit to stop the Holocaust or Stalin's massacres in the Soviet Union. I mean, it's not like the Bible presents an aloof god who was afraid to step in and do things.

I also wonder what Christians who use free will as an excuse for the problem of evil think about heaven. Do we still have free will in heaven? If so, does that mean the problem of evil still exists in the afterlife, and that we can expect the same type of suffering in heaven as happens in life? Or do they believe it is possible for God to set up a realm with free will and without suffering? And if so, then you're back to the problem of why he created the physical universe so differently.

Granted, there are other reasons to not believe in God, so we don't have to fret about being stuck in a universe created by such a cruel deity. This is really more just a thought experiment to point out the flaws in some apologetic reasoning. We might just as well be wondering why Apollo's chariot doesn't burn up from the heat of the sun.

*I've used examples myself of Yahweh not being good (e.g. God vs. Supervillains). But it's always been to make people question their assumptions about religion, not as evidence itself against gods.

Note: This entry is adapted from a series of comments I left on the CNN article, Penn Jillette: Time for atheists to stand up and be counted.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Answering Quora on the Safety of Organic Foods and Microwaves

Organics, Just Say NoI recently came across a question on Quora, Will it be okay if I eat healthy organic food, twice a day, with the stipulations that they be microwaved?. This is related to a previous entry of mine, Why I Oppose Organic Food, so I decided to repost my answer here, with a few edits.


It depends on what context you mean by 'okay'.

Let's start with the organic food. If you mean okay as far as your own health, then sure, organic food can be healthy. Here's a good summary from a previous Quora question, Jae Won Joh's answer to Is organic food a better option?. For the most part, organically grown food is about the same nutrition-wise as conventionally grown crops. Organic had slightly higher risks for some bacterial infections, but not by a huge amount. Organic tended to have less pesticide residue than conventional, but according to another study (see this Quora answer - Richard Muller's answer to What are some mind-blowing facts about food?) organic crops tend to be higher in carcinogens. This makes sense because varieties used for organic crops have to have higher natural resistance to pests, meaning the chemicals conferring this resistance will be present throughout the food, not just on the surface like sprayed pesticides which can be washed off.

But me, I tend to be a bit of a tree hugger. So when I think of 'okay', I think in terms of the whole environment. And this is the main reason I try to avoid organic foods. Habitat loss is perhaps the biggest threat to biodiversity in the world - even more of a threat than global warming. And studies show that organic crops on average give yields 20-25% lower than conventional techniques (with a lot of variation depending on the particular crop). That's huge. If all crops were grown organically, we'd need roughly 1/3 more cropland! And that means a whole lot more habitat destruction, and hence a lot more loss to biodiversity. And the thing is, 'conventional' farming will always be at least as good as organic, and most likely better, because conventional farms can use every technique available to organic farms plus some. (More info - Why I Oppose Organic Food).

As far as using a microwave, the health considerations are minuscule. Cooking only with a microwave can be slightly more nutritious, as described in this article, Microwave cooking and nutrition - Harvard Health. The shorter cooking time means less breakdown of nutrients, and less liquid means less nutrients are leached out to be dumped down the drain (like if you boil veggies). But if you're going to be cooking your food conventionally at home first and then using a microwave to re-heat it, then this nutrient loss will have already occurred when you initially cook the food. But as that article stated, "let's not get too lost in the details. Vegetables, pretty much any way you prepare them, are good for you, and most of us don't eat enough of them."

As far as the environmental impact, here's another article, Stove versus Microwave: Which Uses Less Energy to Make Tea?. Basically, the difference is tiny. Stove tops are slightly more efficient at boiling water than microwaves, while microwaves are slightly more efficient than full size ovens at heating food. But to put those slight differences in perspective, the article quotes a consumer advocate as saying "You'd save more energy over the year by replacing one light bulb with a CFL or turning off the air conditioner for an hour--not an hour a day, one hour at some point over the whole year." So the differences are hardly worth worrying about.

So to summarize, as far as health, organic has about the same nutritional value as conventionally grown food, only slightly higher risks as far as bacterial infection, and a bit more risk regarding cancer due to the higher carcinogen levels. Microwaves don't make much difference at all regarding health, especially if you're using them to reheat food, not for the initial cooking. On the environmental side, organic has a much higher negative impact due to lower crop yields and associated habitat destruction. Microwaves make hardly any environmental difference compared to conventional cooking techniques.

So all in all, while it's not super risky, I'd recommend against organics because of the higher levels of carcinogens and the bigger environmental impact. Using a microwave to reheat food is fine.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Answering Quora - Is technology replacing spirituality?

In keeping with the spirit of my recent entry, Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide?, this week I'm answering a related question that was recently posted on Quora, Is technology replacing spirituality?. Here is my answer.


Below is perhaps my favorite photograph of all time, the The Chandra Deep Field South*:

Deep Look Into Space

That's only a very low-res version. Go visit the ESO page, A Pool of Distant Galaxies, download the full image, and take some time to look at it and marvel (really, I mean it, you won't be disappointed). Practically every point and smudge of light in that image is an entire galaxy, not just a single star. And that image covers a portion of the sky smaller than the full moon. The image is awe-inspiring, humbling, and marvelous all at the same time. Thousands of years ago when people looked up at the night sky, they thought the stars were shiny objects embedded in a firmament, or mythological beings. There was no conception at all of how unimaginably vast the universe really is. It's only technology that makes images like this one possible, and that reveal to us our place in the universe.

And how did I come to find this image personally? The Internet - a vast collection of networked computers sharing practically all of human knowledge. And this image is but just one example. There's a whole vast array of mind-blowing lessons to be found online, from understanding evolution and our place in the vast tree of life, to the tiniest known portions of nature, subatomic particles, that are only known about because of technologies like the LHC at CERN. And the Internet itself is only possible because of humanity's understanding of semiconductors, electronics, logic, etc. Without that type of technology, I'd be stuck with magazines and other print sources for whatever scraps of information I could find. And even those 'old' information sources rely on printing technology. Before the printing press, my only information sources would have been hand written manuscripts or word of mouth.

Science and technology have revealed so much that would have been impossible to know before. Sure, it's given us distractions, as well. But for those willing to look, it's provided us with a far deeper understanding of nature and the universe and our place in it than any ancient culture could have dreamt of.

*I've used this image before, in the entry, The Universe Is Big. I had a little more explanation putting this image into perspective. And while I was at it, I did take some time to study that image again. It gives me butterflies in my stomach every time.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Answering Quora - Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide?

MeditatingRecently on Quora, somebody posed the question, Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide? Below is my answer.


This question presents a false dilemma. Of course there are many, many aspects of our lives that science doesn't address, but why should we turn to spirituality to address those areas when there are other, better human endeavors to address those parts of our lives?

Science is great at what it does - answering objective questions. It's by far the best method humanity has developed for this purpose. But really, that's its only purpose. Science has nothing to say on right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, awe-inspiring or mundane. Surely, we may find wonder in some of the findings of science. Looking up at the night sky is so much more marvelous knowing what those stars actually are. And science can help inform our actions, using our morality that comes from elsewhere. We wouldn't even know about global warming nor its consequences without science. But our emotional reaction to the night sky, or deciding to do something about global warming, are not part of science itself. Science has only given us the objective information, and then we use other parts of our humanity to react.

The problem with 'spirituality' is that it's plagued by so many historical connotations and associations, that it's hard to know what people really even mean by the term. Just take a look at the Wikipedia entry, Spirituality, for how many different ways people use this term, from Christians ("A spiritual man is one who is Christian 'more abundantly and deeper than others' ") to Muslims to Buddhists to Hindus to New Agers and a whole bunch of others. The one thing that most of these definitions have in common is the mystical or supernatural. But if the mystical and supernatural aren't real, then those versions of spirituality aren't based on anything real. At best, they're noble human endeavors entangled with outdated superstition. So, why not just drop the superstition and focus on the noble parts? But once you do that, is 'spirituality' really the best term to describe it?

We're human beings. We have worries and passions and morality and wonder and all types of subjective concerns. We should spend time reflecting on and fostering these aspects of our lives. We should read literature, go to art museums, study philosophy and ethics, take time during the day to pause and reflect, or even meditate if you want to take that reflection further. But these can all be secular pursuits. There's no need to pretend there's anything mystical about them.

Image Source: Wikimedia with further editing by me


Selling Out