Wednesday, March 31, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Philosophy and science

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 57 Thomas W. Clark “Too Good to Be True, Too Obscure to Explain: The Cognitive Shortcomings of Belief in God”

This is a philosophical and scientific look at naturalism, the argument that there is no split of the natural and the supernatural. If you look at the universe in the right way, he says, you will come to that conclusion. He uses logic and scientific methods to make his case, explaining them as he goes. Along the way he addresses a few arguments for belief, without specifically naming them. He keeps coming back to naturalism and uses in a couple footnotes.

Although he develops his argument scientifically, he lost me a couple times. There just isn’t room in a short essay to support everything, such as;

“The diversity of the animal kingdom, the complexities of human thought and culture, even consciousness itself- all this can in principle, and increasingly in practice, be traced back through biological, geological, stellar, and cosmic evolution to the Big Bang.”

A pretty big claim. At one point he also admits that among those who use philosophical/scientific/naturalist methods there is plenty of disagreement. Although he says that to point out that they all agree there is no supernatural. He also admits that this approach doesn’t disprove anything. He says this to point out that lack of disproof is not proof, and says,

“If it were, one’s ontology would necessarily expand to include all logically conceivable entities, however scant the evidence for them – an unwieldy universe indeed.”

He introduces a term I found particularly humorous, “unexplained explainer.” Although he doesn’t mention it, this seems to be in reference to the “unmoved mover.” That term is used to describe God or any creator, sometimes even by agnostics. It is required for explanations that assume that everything has a cause, therefore you must be able to trace everything back to some original cause, and at some point you get to an end, a cause that had no cause, the unmoved mover. Of course, that has no explanation.

He spends some time addressing this, then concludes that the naturalist approach is the best one. I will leave it up to you to examine his logic in more detail and decide for yourself. I like his discussion about why our ancestors choose the path they did, leaving us with the legacy of all of these belief systems. I think this can be examined without a discussion of “proof” at all. This essay is more of a scientific proof, so it only touches on these ideas as needed, for example when discussing how a scientific method should be objective, and exclude hopes, he points out religion does the opposite,

“God and his powers, exercised on our behalf, are exactly what we needy, fragile, all too mortal creatures would most want to exist.”

My hope is that we can begin to discuss our hopes and needs and fragileness openly. We seem to spend a lot of time arguing about how others are dealing with it and whether or not one way is better than the other until the arguing itself becomes another way of protecting ourselves from the fears. A scientific approach may be just what we need, but let’s not leave out the value of a good story.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

50 blogs on disbelief - Kindergarten Leper

50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 82 Emma Tom “Confessions of a Kindergarten Leper”

There is a short blurb about each author in the back of the book. Emma is an author and has toured with several rock bands in Australia. This essay is definitely Rock and Roll. It was a great break from the dry scientific ones. The jokes come fast and she doesn’t stop to explain them. I got the one about Big Bird from Sesame Street because I was watching Sesame Street when Big Bird met this new friend Snuffleupagus. For weeks, only Big Bird saw him and everyone treated him like his friend was imaginary.

The essay starts out rather serious with a story of a scripture teacher from Kindergarten who told her if she didn’t believe in God, she would get leprosy. She calls this teacher Mrs You Will Rot In Hell (And Also For A While Here On Earth). Emma does not pull any punches in castigating her for putting these thoughts into children’s heads. She also points out that this kind of scare tactic is exactly what led her to atheism. But then she has some fun with it, and herself when she ponders what a child would think if told that,

“after you die, you are buried in the black earth where maggots will eat out your eyes, and earthworms will burrow through your cute button nose and eventually there’ll be nothing left but a smelly old skeleton. “

She notes that this could have something to do with why it is so difficult to recruit people to atheism.

Although there is definitely some anger from the exclusiveness of religion, she tries to imagine an inclusive God;

“In my opinion, any great deity smart enough to create the eyeball, funny enough to fashion farting and wry enough to hatch homosexuality would embrace non-subscribers with open arms (or open tentacles if she, he, it, or they turned out to be of extraterrestrial origin).”

She imagines that, if there is a heaven, it will be populated by compassionate people with big-hearts regardless of affiliation or scriptural knowledge including “inner-city Wiccans who’ve been particularly nice to cats.”

Robert Wright - Evolution of God

One of the reasons I started this blog was to organize my thoughts and compare them to contemporary sources on the same subject. At some undetermined point, I will decide if it is worth organizing any further into a book, more organized website or other format. Meanwhile, I hope people are finding this a place to come for ideas for further study.

One idea that someone else on the web directed me toward is this interview.

Krista Tippet, Speaking of Faith with Robert Wright

I listen to Speaking of Faith a lot, but the podcasts don't play well in my car, so I have missed a few lately. Luckily I didn't miss this one. It is the closest thing to my approach that I have found.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


50 Blogs on Disbelief
My thoughts on the book, 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Athiests, edited by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk. Written as I read them in no particular order. The page number of the essay is provided at the top of each entry.
p. 200 Susan Blackmore “Giving Up Ghosts and Gods”

Very interesting. A very practical look at human experiences and how to approach our understanding of ourselves. Susan does not discuss her religious history. Instead she spent 25 years as a parapsychologist, that’s right, looking for ghosts and psychics. She did this on her on own volition because of a profound experience.

In 1970 while a student at Oxford, she had an out-of-body experience that lasted for two hours. She was convinced it was real and that it could not be explained by the science she was studying. She slept in haunted houses, investigated poltergeists, even trained as a witch in her search for knowledge. She eventually realized her experience was explainable, as well as all of the other phenomenon she was investigating. What is really great is that she is not angry about it.

Science has advanced in 40 years. An out-of-body experience can now be induced in a lab. Her experience was real, and it did change her life, but it was not paranormal. She can now listen to someone’s near-death experience and validate it. She can also explain it. She can’t explain everything, but she has seen enough to conclude that there are “probably” no paranormal phenomena. Having had a profound experience herself, she also has a very good sense of where science and explanations “run out”. As she says,

“Here we meet the mystery of consciousness itself.”
We all feel that we are a mind inhabiting a body. We talk of a voice inside our head. Sometimes called “dualism”, it is not scientifically supportable. That voice is created by the firing of neurons, although precisely how that is done has not yet been explained. We can externally stimulate a nerve and make someone move their finger, and the mind has the thought that it controlled that movement, but we can’t map out a thought, or create the memory of a nonexistent event.

Susan points out that even in mystical language, the goal is “to become one” or to “drop the illusion of the separate self.” As she says,

“These claims do not conflict with science, for the universe is indeed one, and the separate self is indeed an illusion.”
She hopes, as do I, that science and experience can come together and figure this out. She sees that these experiences won’t just go away and that they can help us in our understanding of our consciousness. We don’t need to ridicule those who have them. Nor should we provide them with explanations that are pure fantasy.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


It is the time of Lent, a time when you are supposed to be thinking more about Christ than other times. Or you are thinking about Mardi Gras and green beer, either way. If you manage to make it through this entire blog post, you can call it penance.

I stumbled into two good services this week. The first one was Lutheran. I was there to accept a donation from them for Kids Against Hunger. I sat up front, got my check, and didn’t think that just walking out at that point would have looked very good. The other one was my own church. I went in to work on the computer and there was a Lenten Bible study going on. The pastor said, “welcome, come and have a seat”, I didn’t want to be rude so I pretended like that was really the reason I was there.

The sermon was about the book of Luke, chapter 13. The parable of the fig tree. If you followed the link to the passage, you saw that they add in the title of “Repent or Perish”. It is historically interesting to me that people used to respond to “repent or perish” positively. I still can’t figure out why any modern person would do anything but run away.

The titles in bold in are modern additions, brief interpretations you might say. Interpretation of parables is always needed to get from “do it or die” to something more useful, but even in the text itself, there it is, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish”, right out of the mouth of Jesus. In anti-Christian interpretations of parables, I often here this one being pointed out as odd, that Jesus would come into an orchard and suggest cutting down a fig tree because it is not bearing fruit. Has that sound of, get on board with our God, or get out of here.

First that. In parables, don’t always assume that the “master” or “Lord” or in this case the vineyard owner is Jesus. Treat it like any story and look for what characters you can relate to, or who they might be like. Remember they will be analogies for people from 2,000 years ago. That makes it a little more challenging.

So what did the Lutheran pastor do with this? He brought up the horrible words of Pat Robertson about the Haitians making a pact with the devil, and quickly dismissed those words. He then gave a bit of a history lesson. A few people no doubt rested their eyelids, or opened their Blackberries, but I perked up.

Around 100 years ago, morals were loosening, cities were growing and Protestants were examining where they fit in. Specific rules of piety were developed, against gambling and drug use for instance. This was fine for some people, probably kept a few from losing their jobs and homes. The next generation took that on, adopted it and made it their own. Tom Brokaw wrote a book about them titled, “The Greatest Generation”. But the next generation just saw those rules as restrictive, something in the way of their experience of the world. They were not wrong for seeing it that way. That is something that happens with the passing of generations.

What is needed is to re-examine our rules every few generations. Thomas Jefferson proposed that the Constitution expire after 20 years and each new generation be forced through the same process that he did. Fortunately he lost that vote, or you might say his idea died in committee. Anyway, here’s a pastor, a Lutheran pastor, and if you listen to Garrison Keillor, you know what I mean, saying we need to rethink how pious we are. If we don’t, the future of the church is questionable.

How does this relate to “repent or perish”? Well, first, we all die, no gettin round that. The first couple examples are of people who died and were perhaps unprepared. One set by a building falling on them or something (I know of no extra-Biblical evidence of what that tower was or why it fell), and another set that somehow got caught up in some political action and killed by their occupiers, a Roman form of racial profiling. Jesus points to those that are alive, and says they are no better than those who died.

That all came from the pastor, this is my aside; an atheist complaint I often hear is that people will thank God that they lived when natural disaster comes near them. They are thankful that their home was not destroyed when their neighbors’ was, with everyone in it. They somehow skip over that the same God cut short the lives of people right next to them. Conversely, they don’t blame God when something happens to their church building. This passage points out how bad that theology is. One person’s survival says nothing about how God feels about them, or how well they have lived their lives.

Everyone is going to die. The question is, what will the sum of your life be? Are you waiting until later to do something for someone else? Are you hoping that things will get better, and then you will have some time to go visit someone in the hospital? Are you looking at how someone else’s life turned out and thinking, “at least I did better than that.” I don’t like lists of what is right and wrong, that’s why I shy away from politics, but I still think about it generally. That’s the message I get.

The second service was a Bible study, so the discussion was more important than the message, but I want to highlight a little of it. We were looking at 2 Corinthians 5:11. This is Paul speaking, the apostle that spread the word after Christ died and started a bunch of churches all across Rome. He is explaining the basis of Christianity, that Christ died for our sins, reconciling us to God and we have to be “in Christ” to get the benefit of that. If you believe Paul was directly inspired by God to write those words, and they have survived multiple translations to get to you in plain English, and you don’t read the rest of what Paul said then this is pretty clear. To give another translation, the comedian Bill Hicks interpreted the message as, “God loves you, he wants you to come to him, and if you don’t, you will burn in Hell.”

Is there anything else here? Well sure, but I’m already past 1,000 words here and have probably lots a few of you by now. One of the questions our pastor asked was, “How has God reconciled us to Godself through Christ?” There were several good answers, someone said Jesus was an arbitrator, and the pastor agreed that the book of Hebrews has that message. Another said that Jesus came to say that we are free from all the lists of rules, but we need to continue to consider what moral behavior is, and the pastor agreed that the book of Luke says that. Other answers could be related to other books and passages and all were confirmed.

There was no one answer. This can be seen as multiple aspects of one big answer. An answer that can’t be expressed in a few sentences or you could say that the Bible doesn’t tell you that. I kinda like the second one. Considering how many pastors there are that consider it their job to claim to have that answer, and seem to be intent on keeping you confused enough to not be able to figure out that the answer isn’t in scripture, I’m glad I have met a few that come right out and say that it’s not there. It may be in your heart, or you may discover it through some other means, but that is for you to find, not for someone else to tell you.

Friday, March 5, 2010


This one has been going around on Facebook and such

How do you answer this question? Kids are always asking why and sometimes it is just to get a rise out of you or some attention. But pleading at this level does demand some sort of response. I don’t see it so much as a song about the problems in the world as much as the story of a young person waking up from childhood and realizing there is evil in the world. Kind of like “Puff the Magic Dragon”, but more literal.

My answer to his question in song is “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen.

It has a hymm like feel to it, but Leonard is not religious. It points to a bright and warm world, but acknowledges the reality of that world. Here are Leonard’s comments on the meaning.

Cohen on Anthem

But that is just a pill for the symptom; the antidote to the song will require lifestyle changes and a lot more growing up. In one of my earliest posts, I mentioned the book “Blessed Unrest”. The author, Paul Hawken, does more than just talk about good things that people are doing around the world, he goes out and teaches other people how to see what can and should be done.

In one of his presentations, to an agro-chemical company, one of the participants said that there needed to “equitable distribution of resources as a prerequisite for moving to a more sustainable world. A VP retorted, “That is communism, socialism, it has nothing to do with ecology or the enviroment.” In the seminar, 60 engineers divided into 4 teams. Their task was to design a spaceship that could leave Earth and return in 100 years with its crew alive, healthy and happy.

The best one included weeds and fungi and small animals to enliven the soil. All of the things that the company was paid to kill. They found no room for any of their own products. They included artists and storytellers who would create culture, rather than just consume DVDs and MP3s. The question was asked if it was fair if 20% of the inhabitants received 80% of the fruits, vegetables and medicine. They all shouted down the idea, including the VP. Afterwards, some of the participants quit their jobs.

The idea of Earth as a spaceship was put forth by Kenneth Boulding a long time ago. It takes a while for culture to absorb an idea like this.

Boulding on Spaceship Earth

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Feb 2010 Screwball Award

I would like to thank the people over at TheologyWeb for the February 2010 screwball award. This is not an exclusive award but I am proud to accept it just the same. I think you win with just one vote, but anyway. Apparently there is a ceremony, but the details are sketchy. I have to wear a hat with a D on it and there is something funny about the cake. This award is short of being branded a heretic, but I am working up to that. Apparently my ideas are “screwy”, although you don’t get an explanation of exactly why you win a Screwball Award.

If you have never been to TheologyWeb (and why would you?), be prepared. The experience is similar to one I had when I picked up a “Teen” magazine once when I was about 35, just out of curiosity. I didn’t get most of the slang and very few of the cultural references. I was led to, well misled to, TheologyWeb by a post that I linked to in an earlier blog. It is a large discussion forum with 2,769 active members at last count and millions of posts. But surprisingly there is a lack of diversity.

Discussion forums allow people of opposing views to come together in ways that are not possible elsewhere. They are as much a cultural leap as Jazz radio was back in the 20’s and 30’s. You know the people you are talking to can’t harm you physically, and it is public only to those in the forum or those who know who you really are behind the screen name, so there is little risk of your neighbor hearing something you said and judging you for it. However, with a lot of time on their hands, a few members can dominate a forum just by making long winded posts and diverting your threads off topic. Also, there is something called a “Troll”, look it up before diving in.

It started when I began a discussion on homosexuality. With all the church rulings changing as well as secular laws, I wondered what people’s personal experiences were. I got one private message from someone who said they no longer brought up the issue at this forum, and the rest, well you can guess. At least one homosexual, and a few reformed alcoholics did come out of the woodwork but even they had adopted more fundamentalist views. I tried to avoid it, but eventually I had to switch to a discussion of how to you determine what is moral. It really wasn’t a discussion at all.

What helped win the award, I think, was someone who made a somewhat personal statement about how I must feel about the discussion we were having. Normally you stay away from that in discussion forums because personal statements open you up to personal attacks. So you have to decide in advance that you just don’t care. I responded with a “thanks” for their concern.

At my worst moments, I agreed with another forum member that my main debate opponent was “cherry picking” bible verses. At my best, I put in a link to Romans 13:8-10 and talked about love. This is a not a cherry picked verse by the way, the whole of the book of Romans supports this verse, and some things Jesus as well as early Popes and Rabbis said. Oops, there I go being screwy again. We can discuss that over at TheologyWeb if you’d like.