Skepticism, Religion Archive

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Parable of Puppies and God

PuppyImagine that you have a puppy that you know likes to chew on garden hoses (yes, that's personal experience). You've tried training him, and maybe he's even been getting better, but you know he's still not perfect. Well, you've been using the hose for a day's worth of chores in the back yard. And when you're all finished up with the chores, you see the hose laying out, and it crosses your mind that if you leave the puppy unattended in the backyard, there's a good chance he's going to chew on the hose and ruin it. But you're tired and don't really feel like rolling up the hose, so you take your chances. You go inside to relax in the a/c and have a beer or two, while you leave the puppy playing outside. Well, later that night, you go out to find the hose destroyed because the puppy chewed on it. Is the puppy really entirely to blame for the situation? Sure, what he did was wrong, and he was disobedient to the way you'd been training him. But you knew that was one of the puppy's shortcomings, and you left the hose out there, anyway. The whole situation could have been avoided if you'd just put the hose away and not tempted the puppy.

The Bible tells the story of an all knowing and all powerful god, who created a garden of paradise with everything every creature would ever need. And he created humans, knowing their faults even better than you knew the puppy's (faults that he must have created on purpose, since he is, after all, all knowing and all powerful). And then, this god put the one thing that could wreck the entire situation right in the middle of the garden - the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And then, he just tells these innocents not to eat from it. Hell, he hadn't even given his newly created humans any sense of good and evil, because they could only get that by eating from the tree. He didn't even put a fence around it! Oh, and he also created a serpent that he must have had a good idea would try to tempt his humans.

So, the 'unexpected' (cough, cough) happened, and the humans were tempted into eating the fruit of this tree. And God found out. Now, if you found a ruined hose that your puppy had chewed, you might be tempted to scold him or yell at him. But you sure as hell wouldn't physically injure the dog. But what did God do? He cursed ALL women, not just the one who ate the fruit, to have painful childbirth, and to be ruled over by their husbands. And he cursed ALL men to endless days of toil. And, he kicked humanity out of the garden. And according to certain fundamentalist religions, the Fall precipitated all manner of other negative consequences on the whole universe. And remember, this was supposed to be an all knowing God. So, unless he was completely incompetent, it seems like he was setting Adam and Eve up for failure on purpose.

And it doesn't get any better. Throughout the rest of the Bible, there are all types of other examples of this character acting cruelly - the massacre of Noah's flood, the plagues of Egypt (remember, God himself hardened Pharaoh's heart on several occasions to prolong this suffering just so that God could show off - and he punished all Egyptians, even their slaves), Job, the genocides when the Israelites conquered the promised land, and worst of all, Hell to punish souls for eternity for finite sins.

In the Bible, God is always the source of the worst suffering and atrocities in the stories. Sure, the stories are told from the point of view of people afraid of that god and groveling lest they suffer even more, but it's pretty clear who the Big Bad is. From a reality viewpoint, I'm not mad at God, because God's not real. But in the framework of the fictional stories written about him, God's the villain, and you would like to see him get his comeuppance (which, thanks to another fictional story, His Dark Materials, we do finally get to see).

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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This entry was adapted from a Quora answer, How mad are atheists at God, on a scale of 1 to 10?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Responding to Article - Atheists Aren't Dogmatic

eSkepticThe latest issue of Skeptic magazine had an article with a few things I disagree with. Skeptic recently shared the article in their eSkeptic section, so you can read it even if you aren't a member of the Skeptics Society. Here's the link:

The Three Shades of Atheism: How Atheists Differ in Their Views on God

The authors conducted a survey to try to help categorize atheist beliefs and the percentage of atheists with those beliefs. They came up with 4 categories to characterize atheist responses. Unfortunately, I think their categories are flawed.

Gnostic-Atheism: Any explicit or implied characterization of the participant's position as certain or definite.

Agnostic-Atheism: Any effort made to distinguish between a "belief" and "knowledge" position; or participants who indicate that they are open to evidence: they describe their belief as malleable and open to changing based on new information, evidence, or "proof."

Ambivalent-Atheism: Any use of the phrase "I don't know" or "I am not sure," or similar characterizations of belief, without further explanation.

Other: Any statement that does not fit the criteria of the other categories.

The problem is, their definitions for 'gnostic-atheism' and 'agnostic-atheism' aren't mutually exclusive. You can be certain of something based on all the evidence you've seen so far, but still open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. I discussed this in detail in my essay, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge, so for this entry, let's just look at a few other knowledge claims as examples.

  • I am certain the Earth revolves around the Sun. However, if somebody showed me convincing evidence to the contrary (and it would take a hell of a lot of evidence at this point), I could be convinced to change my mind.
  • I am certain that the American Revolution took place in the late 1700s. However, with sufficient evidence, I could be convinced to believe that all of our history books were wrong.
  • I am certain garden fairies don't exist. However, I could be swayed by convincing evidence.

As long as we're using language in the normal way, 'certain' just means very, very high confidence. And there are lots of things were reasonably certain about, but could be convinced to change our minds on given sufficient contrary evidence.

The conclusion was especially galling:

Gnostic-theists would be individuals who equate their beliefs with facts, dogmatically insisting that they have positive knowledge of God's existence. Agnostic-theists would be individuals who accept the distinction between belief and knowledge, thereby demonstrating a degree of skepticism about their own position, and would indicate that their belief is based on faith, intuition, or an interpretation of natural phenomena. A 5-level, bipolar scale relating theistic and atheistic beliefs would be:
  1. Gnostic-Atheism
  2. Agnostic-Atheism
  3. Nonbelief
  4. Agnostic-Theism
  5. Gnostic-Theism

The scale represents maximum darkness at both ends, the domains of dogmatic thinking. Maintaining a skeptical attitude toward one's own beliefs can be a challenge but, as the achievements of science have shown, it is a better route to enlightenment.

Were any of my previous examples 'dogmatic'? Is it dogmatic to be certain the Earth orbits the Sun? Is it dogmatic to be certain that fairies don't exist? Is it dogmatic to be certain that leprechauns aren't real? Is it dogmatic to be certain magic unicorns are just fantasy? Why, out of all the mythical and imagined possibilities dreamt up by humans, do gods get treated differently, and why does saying you're reasonably certain that gods don't exist get you labeled 'dogmatic'?

Image Source: Skeptics Society eSkeptic

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Related Reading:
Answer to the Question - How sure are you that your atheism is correct?
 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Response to E-mail on the Pledge of Allegiance

I recently received an email forward with the subject, 'THIS SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED!!---WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!!!...' It was about Congressman supposedly refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, with the writer outraged, and proposing that those Congress members weren't fit to serve.

I couldn't resist replying. So, here's the original email and my response. Note that I cleaned up the text formatting a bit (it was large, bold, and multi-colored), and reduced the image size (though you can click on it to get the full size version, if you're really that curious).


The Original Email

If they won't stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance,

In my opinion...they have no place in our Congress!...

New York state senators protesting session
Any member of the house or senate that refuses to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the Chambers should be escorted out by the Sergeant of Arms until they comply If your allegiance is not with this country and our flag, just who is it with?

Why don't we ask someone like Minnesota's Muslim congressman Keith Ellison!

Let's cut off their pay -- and all benefits. Give the ingrates two days to decide to retire or be impeached!


The Facts:

  • That's a photo from the New York State Senate, not the U.S. Senate or the House.
  • The photo is from 2009, not recently
  • The seated state senators were protesting the session itself, and the political wrangling that had led to it, not the Pledge
  • The seated senators normally stand for the Pledge during normal, non-controversial sessions


My Commentary:

This photo doesn't have much to do with the commentary in the email, but I'll still add my two cents to that commentary.

I see this issue from multiple sides, and I'm kind of conflicted, myself. On the one hand, I'm note a huge fan of the Pledge to begin with. Forced loyalty oaths are for totalitarian governments, not the land of the free. Besides, Congressmen and Senators already take an oath when they first take office. If they're honest and will support the country, one oath should be enough. If they're not honest and patriotic, it doesn't matter how many times they repeat the Pledge - it's just empty words.

On the other hand, the Eagle Scout in me does get upset when people disrespect symbols of this nation. But then I go back to recognizing that everyone has their First Amendment rights to express themselves however they want. I mean, I just recently saw the clip of Donald Trump hugging an American flag at a rally (The Hill). And I'll be honest, it infuriated me. Talk about disrespect. He was treating the U.S. flag as a prop, not as a solemn symbol of our nation and all those who have fought and died to defend it. Has he ever even read the Flag Code? But, that's still his First Amendment right. I'm not calling for Trump to be impeached because of that sign of disrespect. So even if Congressmen and Senators (or Colin Kaepernick) decide to sit during the Pledge out of a principled protest, that's their First Amendment right, and I'll defend their right to do so.

And frankly, I have no idea why Keith Ellison was mentioned at all. He wasn't in the photo, and I've never heard of him refusing to stand for the Pledge. Was it merely because he's Muslim?

Short version: I'm not a huge fan of the Pledge, but as long as it's a custom, I would prefer that Congressmen and Senators stand and recite the Pledge appropriately. But if they decide to sit out of principled protest, that's their right to do so, just as it's Donald Trump's right to disrespect the flag by hugging it. And I'm not about to grant either party the right to start forcefully removing members of the other party because they deem them to be insufficiently patriotic.

Friday, April 28, 2017

How much does it bother me that people believe in gods?

I came across a Quora question not too long ago, Does it bother atheists that people believe in God?. Here's my answer.


The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismIt does bother me that people believe in gods, but the extent to which it bothers me depends very much on the specifics of how the person acts.

Look, most of my friends are Christians. And for the most part, we only discuss religion a bit, and have a live and let live attitude. As long as people are reasonable and tolerant, religion isn't the type of thing that gets me up in arms. But even then, it still bothers me some. I mean, I think back to when I was still a Christian, and all the cognitive dissonance I experienced, the fear of Hell (especially for others besides myself), the Catholic guilt, the wrestling with secular ethics vs. Biblical rules, etc. It may have taken me a few years to get to this point, but I'm happier now as an atheist than I was as a Christian, and I'd like for others to have that. But, I also don't want to be that guy that's always arguing and being pushy about beliefs. So here's a list of examples stepping through different types of believers and how I feel about them.


Type of Believer: Tolerant believer who keeps their religion private and doesn't impose on others
My Feelings: This bothers me on the same level as people who believe in urban legends, or who root for different sports teams from me. They're wrong about the nature of reality, and I would like to help them see the world more clearly, and recognize that the Steelers are the one true... sorry - wrong topic
Level of Opposition: Good natured discussions over beer (though I hardly ever bring it up, waiting for others to broach the subject)


Type of Believer: Somewhat tolerant believer, but who lets their religious beliefs influence the way they vote (particularly if they vote against women's rights or LGBT rights, or think global warming can't be real because God wouldn't let it happen)
My Feelings: Well, now your religious beliefs aren't as private anymore, since they're having real world effects. So, now I do feel more justified in trying to get you to change your mind.
Level of Opposition: More heated discussions over beer, Possible end of friendship depending on how they treat individuals


Type of Believer: Door to door proselytizers
My Feelings: Hoo boy. I love debate, and I have strong opinions on religion, and you actually came to my house with the purpose of talking about religion, so here we go.
Level of Opposition: Debate for as long as they're willing to stay at my house


Type of Believer: Parents who withhold real medical treatment from children in favor of faith healing
My Feelings: I don't personally know anyone like this, but I know they're out there. The case of Makayla Sault was a heartbreaking, recent example. Children shouldn't have to suffer or die for the religious beliefs of their parents.
Level of Opposition: Push for laws to outlaw this type of child abuse


Type of Believer: Intolerant believer, who lets their religious beliefs influence the way they vote and how they treat individuals (particularly women, the LGBT community, and people outside their faith)
My Feelings: Yeah, now they're definitely into the strong negative effects of religion, and I don't just feel justified to try to change their minds, but see it as a moral duty to society.
Level of Opposition: Strong debate, definitely not going to be friends


Type of Believer: Creationist/Evangelical/Fundamentalist Preachers/Leaders
My Feelings: You're not just misleading yourself, but misleading all the people who follow you. And these brands of religion are usually the more close-minded branches that lead to negative effects, so I'm definitely going to speak up.
Level of Opposition: Pointed blog entries and Quora answers


Type of Believer: Intolerant Religious Politicians
My Feelings: We have a First Amendment for a reason. Government and religion aren't supposed to be intertwined. It really, really bothers me when politicians pass religiously based laws, or give preferential treatment to certain religious institutions.
Level of Opposition: Pointed blog entries and Quora answers, Vote for opponent


So, that's how I feel about it. We live in a free, multicultural society, where people have the right to believe anything they want. As long as religious people are tolerant of others and don't use religion as a reason to discriminate or make bad decisions, the most they'll have to fear from me is talking about religion over a beer every once in a while. However, if a person's religious beliefs are having harmful, real-world consequences, then I'm going to speak up.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Answering Quora - Why are you not preparing for the tiny possibility of a literal Hell?

A few months ago, I came across a question on Quora, Why are you not preparing for the tiny possibility of a literal Hell?. Here's my answer.

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I don't prepare for the Christian Hell for the same reason I don't prepare for this afterlife:

Egyptian Book of the Dead

The ancient Egyptians believed there were seven gates the deceased must pass through on their way to the Field of Reeds, and each of those gates was guarded by some type of supernatural creature. The only way past was to recite the appropriate spell for each one. If you made it past all them, then your heart was judged on the scale of Maat:

Scale of Maat

Your heart had better match the feather of truth, or else Ammit will devour your soul. If you pass that test, then you get to go on and enjoy the afterlife.

If all that was true, that would be pretty important for your eternal afterlife. Would it make sense to memorize all the spells to recite at the seven gates? I mean, even if there's only a tiny possibility of it being true, what's a few hours worth of memorization compared to eternity?

Or do you, like most people, dismiss the Egyptian afterlife stories as just ancient superstition, and consider the 'tiny' possibility they might be true to actually be a negligible, virtually non-existent chance? Perhaps it's interesting, but no, it's not even worth devoting a few hours worth of time to memorize spells that you will never use, ever again, except perhaps as some interesting bit of trivia at cocktail parties.

That's how non-Christians feel about the Christian Hell. The whole religion is so obviously not true. The 'tiny' chance that Hell might be real is on par with the 'tiny' chance that fairies may exist - i.e. virtually no chance at all. Why worry about such obvious superstition? And even if you were going to worry about it, why pick that superstition in particular? There are lots of proposed possibilities for the afterlife. If you really wanted to be safe, you'd have to prepare for all of them.

Images from Wikipedia - Book of the Dead

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