Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Why I Am an Atheist

I became an atheist after becoming a Sunday School teacher and reading the Bible. I was never a very good Christian so the first thing I had to figure out was exactly what would I teach. I found some dusty old books that said we weren’t descended from monkeys and some more contemporary curricula that talked about how to prepare for the second coming. I modified those lessons while I went on searching.

One of the first things I came across was a quote from Nicholas Humphrey,
If it is ever the case that teaching this system to children will mean that later in life they come to hold beliefs that, were they in fact to have had access to alternatives, they would most likely not have chosen for themselves, then it is morally wrong of whoever presumes to impose this system.”
This really narrowed down what I could do. I found some history, some ethics and I was allowed to say that the Noah story was mythology, so I got by. Some days I put the Bible aside and talked about Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. One thing I could not get around was the story of how Jesus died for us. No matter how you word it, it involves some sort of miracle. If you change it to a story of a guy who stood for peace and justice, then it is no longer a Christian story.

What I saw when I got down to that one story, is that we don’t need the separate discipline. You can call it religion or theology, we just don’t need it. The discipline of history has informed us who wrote the scriptures and who decided which are included in the Bible. We have archaeology to tell us what was happening in the Levant while the scriptures were being written. We have science to explain rainbows and tell us what food is healthy and understand homosexuality.

A truce was made between religion and science some 700 years ago. William of Ockham said any man can recognize patterns and try to understand nature, but only the church can comment on the miracles of God. This allowed science to continue to be taught in a religious world. But now we live in a scientific world. In most of the world, the church has been tamed. The church is now fighting to maintain sway over what science can or cannot comment on rather than science fighting to make any comment at all.

The final question was the question of morality. I knew science was not informing me on that but religion was failing too. What I found were many ideologies and political processes that have been in play for centuries to inform us of how best to live harmoniously. None of them has proven perfectly successful. A few have done better than religions. Religion only plays a supportive role in this process and often it has backed the wrong horse.

All religion has left for me is community. It is a club. I suspect that this too shall pass. Every purpose that it once served or currently claims to serve is better served by another discipline. No matter how much it cleans itself up, dresses itself up with modern trappings, acknowledges its crimes and invites in new data, it is just not necessary. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

How It's Done

Alright, these blogs are getting a little time consuming, requiring reading and stuff. This one will be off the cuff, no looking stuff up, more in the spirit of the Internet. That doesn’t mean I’m just making it up, but I will draw a little on personal experience.

A couple major players in the world of atheists helped me understand how theology works. One of them is Bart Ehrmann, who started out as a fundamentalist from the American South. Of fundamentalism, he now says, it is not much fun, too much damn and very little mental. When he went to seminary school, he went in knowing that there would be liberal professors that would try to teach him that the Bible was written by men and that it was not the inerrant word of God.

He was right, but it wasn’t until he got there that he found out how it’s done. Another great scholar, Daniel Dennett has also explained this from a different perspective. He never saw the Bible as anything but a collection of documents from history and says that the seminary schools are no longer able to find professors for Biblical history that are willing to lie. These professors do want to keep their jobs and to do so, they need to attract fundamentalist students and probably know better than to discuss the theological implications of Bible history in too much depth.

How is it done? Mainly by example. Because the questions have become incessant on the Internet, there are some examples of direct answers, addressing passages like the one about being happy to see babies’ heads smashed on the rocks, but that is not how it is usually done. More difficult to find would be one addressing the 3,000 people that God ordered Moses to kill because they broke the brand new covenant. The chief tool used to address these problems on Sunday, is not to address them at all. Sunday worship involves a few minutes of reading, carefully selected and approved at the highest levels. Stick to that and your battle is half over.

That doesn’t always work. The second time I agreed to give a sermon, I said in advance that I would commit to preaching from the lectionary. My luck, what comes up but the story of Abraham listening to God and almost sacrificing, i.e. killing, his own son, his only son, born at a late age for Abraham and his wife. I even made that part of the sermon; that this was a difficult passage to reconcile with the modern world. Pastors say that pretty often actually. In this case I danced around it and said something about commitment.

Later I realized I could have talked about mythology; that the story was written in a time when human sacrifice was common. This story says, your God is in charge, you must obey, but he isn’t going to ask for human sacrifice anymore. That wouldn’t really be a Christian sermon though, more of an academic lecture. Or I could have done what Penn Gillette does and challenge them to ask themselves, if your god asks you to kill your own son, would you refuse? If you answer yes, then you’re an atheist. But I was never into doing that.

Usually, it’s not as hard as human sacrifice. Most of the child murders and rapes are not in the lectionary, but everyone knows the Abraham story, so I guess they have to include it. Usually, the commonly known part of the story is easily separated from the killing parts. You may have heard of the “still soft voice” of God that Elijah hears in the wilderness. It’s a great little piece of poetry with lots of storms and wind and then a whisper, where he hears God. But what does God say? You won’t hear that in a sermon. God tells Elijah who to anoint for kings and prophets and who they are going to slay.

We do this with non-religious stories by the way. Think about the story of Helen Keller, a little girl who can’t hear or speak. She learns how to communicate then goes on to be a great speaker. But what does she speak about? I always assumed she talked about disabilities or just told her own story. Nope. She was a Socialist. She spoke about worker’s rights. Bet your teacher didn’t tell you that one.

Professors and pastors don’t come out and explain this like I am. So we learn by example. Pastors give us great cherry picked quotes. We look them up and see what immediately precedes or follows them. We learn not to mention those difficult parts. We learn not to talk about politics in polite company. We learn God is love and that’s all you need to know. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Occupy Ancient Palestine

I’m going to take another from the book “Parables as Subversive Speech”, but this one won’t be as painful as the one from a few weeks ago. It was not the analysis of the parable that was as interesting as the sociology he drew on to do the analyzing. You can google “moral entrepreneurs” and find out more about that, or just read my summary here. The parable is from Luke 18:9-14, about the toll collector. It is commonly used to contrast piety and humility and sometimes to discuss how to pray. But this book never goes with the common interpretation.

Before beginning the discussion of what he thinks the parable is about, Herzog (the author) gives his historical analysis, explaining what a toll collector was and why he thinks it is a toll collector and not a tax collector and why that is significant and what a bunch of other people have thought about it, then concludes that the parable was a riddle, even to the people who first heard it. To understand the riddle, he describes the “agonistic” society of the time. Not “agnostic”, “agonistic”, meaning one that is in flux, with competing political groups attempting to draw boundaries. Not too dissimilar from America today.

Drawing those boundaries was not done by committee or democratic vote. It was done by those with some power and authority creating boundaries and declaring that if you were outside of them, then you were a deviant. Deviance then, is a social creation. He sites Erdwin Pfuhl’s The Deviance Process (1980). I got quite a few hits for that on google too.

But you don’t really need to read social-psychology to know what he is talking about. Most of us have either experienced this or seen it in the schoolyard. A group sees someone as a threat to their boundaries, so they label them, attach a stigma. Pfuhl, Malina, Neyrey and others help to understand the details of this by giving us some vocabulary. They define the “rule creators”, the “moral entrepreneurs” who construct the norms and the “rule enforcers” who apply them to specific people. They must raise awareness through wide dissemination of the norms and gain public support. They borrow respectability through existing high profile public figures, seek testimonials and solicit endorsements.

They must also create stress in the population so others feel the threat of the deviant is real. They need to show the current rules aren’t covering theirs, that they aren’t being adequately enforced and there are inadequate means to deal with the crisis. Attention is then turned toward individuals. Deviants are identified and their lives are used as examples. If successful, the actual identity of the individual may be replaced by the deviant one in the eyes of the society.

This all sounds kinda evil, but moral entrepreneurship can be benevolent. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is a moral entrepreneur group. I’m not too bothered by their campaigns to prevent drunk driving or that stigmatize people who do it. Even though the drunk driver may be suffering from the illness known as alcoholism and should be treated with compassion, it is hard to put aside the dangerous choice they are making and give them that. And I really don’t know the scope of the problem or what the best preventative measures are, I just see those horrible pictures of cars crumpled next to the ones of the children who died that M.A.D.D. put up on the television. That’s all I need to know.

An unsuccessful moral entrepreneur, at least unsuccessful for me was George W. Bush when he said I was either with him or against him. It didn’t matter what images he put up, I knew I could be faithful to my country without spending more on consumer goods and without being suspicious of anyone who looked like they were from the Middle East. I put a peace sign on my garage and talked to people about how we should not go to war in Iraq.

Back to the parable, we have two individuals, one representing the Temple, the elite, the keeper and enforcer of the rules and one who has had to take a job that is despised by everyone, collecting tolls. They meet during the time of prayer in public. No one there cares much for the toll collector because he is poor and care even less for him because his job involves taking their money. He has little to appeal to in this situation but a higher power. The book, although often a historical analysis, is in the end a Christian book. When it says “higher power”, we know what it means. In this case, “higher power” can be redefined to mean a set of morals and standards that have been arrived at by agreement over generations and the meaning of the parable will still hold.

The Pharisee makes his appeal to anyone who is listening. He speaks loudly about how he is tithing and fasting and makes no bones about shaming the toll collector. To fulfill his role, the toll collector should have just left with his head hung low. Instead he makes his appeal to the higher power quietly with a prayer asking for mercy. This may seem like a simple act and in a more equal world it would be. But in the world of first century Palestine, it is a breakthrough, a slap in the face of the establishment, a return volley against the violence of a system that keeps people like him in poverty, doing work that perpetuates that very system.

And the final comment of the parable is about the toll collector, “…this man went down to his home justified.” 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Common Sense

“Common Sense” is a very short book, written in 1776. It covers a lot of ground. It can be found for free on the Internet in various forms. He eventually gets to talking about the necessity of a Navy for the new country and the importance of acting in a timely manner. But before that he looks at how the whole idea of countries and governments got started in the first place. He has to make some assumptions, but it still is a better place to start than most of the arguments about government that go on today.

When discussing governments these days, either I’m in a room full of people who agree with me that there are few good leaders out there and they are struggling against corruption by big money and political deals that don’t have the best interests of the country in mind. Or, I’m talking to just a few people who think we started out with some very basic values and those values have been corrupted by a post-modern world that wants to redistribute wealth. Both of those points of view involve a lot of assuming and rarely lead to a discussion of what are the basic reasons for government.

Thomas Paine starts his book with basic reasons. In a word, he says governments are for security. He goes on to talk about how we got to the idea of Kings and eventually to the King of England and all the problems with the monarchy and system of succession at that time. He is building a case to convince the American people that it is time to separate themselves from that system and create their own. Regardless of how you feel about how that worked out or whether or not he is being completely honest about his intentions, he presents his case well and it is worth studying his thoughts.

He is a man of his time, and he also has some assumptions he is working with. Although “separation of church and state” would not be uttered for a generation, in the latter half of the book he says, “ For myself, I fully and conscientiously believe that it is the will of the Almighty that there should be a diversity of religious opinions among us.” Then immediately follows that with, “It affords a larger field for our Christian kindness; were we all of one way of thinking, our religious dispositions would want matter for probation; and on this liberal principle I look on the various denominations among us to be like children of the same family, differing only in what is called their Christian names.” This reminded me of the line from The Blues Brothers movie when John Belushi asks a bar owner what kind of music they play, and she says, “both kinds, country and western.”

I digress somewhat, but being a man who lived in a world dominated by Christianity, Paine needs to address it to make a case for such a blasphemous idea as going against the divine right of the King. He does so saying,
“As the exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature, so neither can it be defended on the authority of scripture; for the will of the Almighty as declared by Gideon, and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by Kings.”

In a bit of Biblical analysis that foreshadows the actions of George Washington, Paine recounts the story of Gideon, a conquering general who was offered the crown including succession of his progeny forever. Gideon refused saying, “"I will not rule over you, neither shall my son rule over you. THE LORD SHALL RULE OVER YOU." (Judges 8:23) Not only declining, but denying their right to give it. It was a brilliant argument against monarchy.... for 1776.

In a different time,  1333 BCE, a 9 year old, Tutankhaten acceded to the Egyptian throne. One wonders what divine right he (or his mother) claimed to make such an accession and how he justified restoring the old deities and giving powers back to the priests of Amun.  Probably not something Americans think much about, but many Americans do continue to think about, discuss, even bring up in presidential debate, their Biblical justifications for caring for the poor, giving much to those who from much is expected, the limits of usury, what is or isn’t an abomination, the rights of women and much more.

At some point in the future, if our accumulated knowledge survives long enough, the question of King Tut’s justification for restoring earlier deities will be equivalent to the question of whether or not America was founded as a Christian nation. America will be just another empire that rose and fell and Christianity another religion that reflected the culture of its time. If you disagree, then you are saying that Christianity is unlike any religion that has come before. That it will survive all future changes and encroachments of new knowledge. I’m not so worried about the people who disagree as those who see this future coming, but ignore it.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Introducing Averroes

“Isti, qui negant aliquod ens contingens, exponendi sunt tormentis quousque concedant, quod possibile est eos non torqueri”Translation:“Those who deny the existence of contingency should be tortured until they admit that it is possible for them not to be tortured.” ― Duns Scotus

When I first came across this, I was a bit shocked. Taken literally, it is barbaric. It was written sometime in the late 13th century, in Europe, which would be known for barbarism. That context doesn’t make it much less shocking. However Duns Scotus was a philosopher, not a member of the Spanish Inquistion.

It is likely that he did not actually intend to have anyone tortured. This quote is supposedly how he demonstrated that we have free will. When he says “contingency” he was talking about what we would today understand as “free will”.  His logic is, if someone is torturing you and you ask them to stop, they would need to have free will to do that. Philosopher’s arguments weren’t all that sophisticated back then. It has the ring of a bully saying, “why are you hitting yourself?” while he has your wrist and is smacking your own hand against your head.

Free will is an important element of Christianity because without it, we could not choose to believe in God or not, or choose to follow his laws or not. If we aren’t doing that, then all of God’s punishments don’t make any sense. They don’t make any sense anyway, especially when someone says an entire nation is punished for something done by one person in a previous generation, but such is the logic of the Bible and its readers.

When someone says that our entire system of law is based on Judeo-Christian thought, this is partly what they are talking about, and they are partly right. Many other religions are based on gods and goddesses that act arbitrarily and take over the minds of people and cause all sorts of things to happen for whatever reason they feel like. Gods not of the Bible often have personality flaws or more human characteristics. God of the Bible sometimes does too, partly because there is the YHWH god and the Elohim god, but that’s a different blog. Most of the time, Judeo-Christian God is absent, speaking through bushes, a still soft voice, or sending cryptic messages via angels. But this idea that we have some ability to reason and make choices is pretty consistent throughout the Bible.

There were of course other gods and philosophies and a strong influence on European thought at the time was the rediscovery of Aristotle. When Rome fell and the tribes of Europe fell into constant warfare, the writings of Plato and Aristotle were mostly lost to the West. They made their way to the new Rome, the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey and further East to Baghdad. As the Muslim Empire grew, they translated the Greek writings and expanded on their ideas, leading to what most agree is the beginning of modern science.

The Muslim Empire expanded all the way across Northern Africa and into Spain. Cordoba Spain was a jewel of multi-culturalism, while most of Europe was still in the Dark Ages. I know some will say that things were happening with the Christians, there was Pope Sylvester II who questioned authority and experimented. But then not too much later there was the Inquisition. These conservative and liberal swings continue for centuries, with small advances in ideas like better treatment for slaves, then a return to repression. For the most part, a culture of magic, the divine right of Kings and rule by force prevailed. The Muslim Empire experienced similar swings with only slightly better success during the times when seeking knowledge was encouraged.

During one of those swings, in Spain, a man by the name of Averroes was commissioned to translate Aristotle. This led him to write on how one might reconcile faith, something that all but a very few considered the only way of looking at the world, with reason, something Aristotle spoke of at length. Reading Averroes, you might think he was a bit crazy. It seems like he is rambling, grasping for a thought. You have to keep in mind he didn’t understand how energy gets here from the sun, how mountains were formed by glaciers or how humans evolved from earlier life forms. He was one of the first to guide us toward how we would eventually figure out all those things.

You also have to keep in mind that he was aware of those conservative/liberal swings. He was commissioned by a liberal Caliph, but in his lifetime his works were banned and he was exiled from Spain. Fortunately for him this was brief. He may have wanted to say much more but didn’t out of fear. He may have wanted to say that logically, there is no god, that god is a symbolic construct to help explain our feelings and dreams, that it is used by the powerful to oppress women and justify slavery. That probably would have got him more than exiled. But I don’t know what he thought, only what he wrote.

When his ideas and translations passed into the Universities that were run by the Roman Catholic Church, they met with more trouble. Thomas Aquinas attempted to work out his own version of reconciling faith and reason. Then in 1277, most philosophy was banned from being taught. The bans were eventually lifted and Aquinas was eventually given sainthood, but not without much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was William of Ockham who came up with the formula that allowed science to move forward and religion to maintain its hold on the hearts of men.

According to Ockham, God creates the universe and can do whatever he wants. We discover patterns in that creation, but reason is not inherent in nature, it is only in our minds. We can explain nature, but we can’t explain God. This answers Euthyphro’s dilemma by saying good is what God declares good. The Church is the only authority to say why or to determine what is evil and who should be punished for it. Science is left to discover patterns all it wants, but has no say about what the church says is a miracle.

Under that system, Galileo was given a tour of the torture chamber. Under that system, the Church went through a string of some of its worse Popes until Luther had his say. Against that system, governments finally started to build walls against the influence. The recent political debates have me wondering if we have made much progress in the last 1,000 years.