Friday, October 7, 2011

The Rapture is now on for Oct. 21st. How many times does one have to fail completely and utterly before they understand they are wrong?

Apparently never, I guess. Remember Harold Camping, the lunatic fundamentalist who convinced a lot of True Believers that Judgment Day was going to occur last May 21st? A large number of truly deluded and easily lead people got rid of all their possessions in order to be ready to ascend to Heaven when the Rapture occurred.

Of course, Camping got it wrong, in that said event never happened.

Well, now he is back and is now completely confident that the Rapture will occur on Oct. 21st. That whole May 21st thing? That was just the last-ditch date for everyone to get their respective houses in order. Oct. 21st is when the Hammer is going to fall. Jesus is really upset with everyone who isn’t a True Believer, and is going to met out the appropriate punishment for our wicked ways.

That is apparently how Camping sees it. Given what a complete and utter lunatic he looked like on May 22nd, I can’t imagine this guy even showing himself in public anymore, much less making yet another prediction that will be shown to be exactly what it is, total horseshit, on Oct. 23rd.

What is it with the human psyche that allows this kind of behavior? How can this guy believe any of this? And how could anyone listen to him and say, “Yeah, he may have been wrong last time, but boy, he is really spot-on this time! Wait until those non-believers see all those earthquakes and Jesus bringing fire and brimstone down on the world!”

I am totally convinced that perhaps a quarter of the human population of this planet is completely insane. They have lost the ability to deal with actual reality, and have retreated into a complete fantasyland just in order to survive. And then, when facts show reality to be something other than what they fantasize, they somehow find a way to rationalize it all away, just so they can maintain their fantasy that they are the only ones that understand and everyone else is in for their comeuppance.

Cross-posted at Barking Rabbits.

Photo from Seattle PI blog.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

In which I receive yet another sign that we non-believers are not very welcome in today’s society.

(I know I haven't posted much of anything on this blog for quite some time, and I apologize for that. I will cross-post this from my other blog for right now, until I can come up a new, highly original, though provoking post for this blog. Thanks for stopping by!)

This last week, I was meeting with a lady about a work related subject. I know her rather well, and perhaps I don’t consider us friends but we do get along well together and have worked together on many occasions. We were meeting at a Starbucks, and had our computers and notes all laid out for the better part of two hours.

As we were packing up to leave, I asked her if she was traveling much. She laid out her impressive travel schedule and said something about not knowing if one major trip would occur or not. Here is how the conversation went after that. (This is paraphrased, of course. My memory isn’t that good that I can remember a conversation word for word.)

Her: Well, I am not worried about it. If I don’t go, I know that I wasn’t meant to go.

Me: What do you mean?

Her: I know that someone is looking out for me and there is a reason that I didn’t go.

Me: Oh. Well, I am of the opinion that life is just one long string of accidents. One of my favorite quotations (unfortunately, I cannot remember the source) goes, “The universe is just one of those things that happen from time to time.”

Her: So, you think there is no meaning in any of this?

Me: No. Life just happens.

Her: Boy, that must suck. Why do you bother? (Exact quote)

Me: What?

Her: Well, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to be nice to people.

Me: No, that’s not correct at all. There are standards and civilities. I have my own moral compass. Have you ever heard of the Golden Rule?

Her: Naw, that’s hogwash.

There was more, but that was the gist of it. As you can see, she is a very outspoken person. She pulls no punches in work related items, and she obviously doesn’t in other matters as well. I let it drop, as we need to work together, probably for the rest of our careers. However, while driving home, the more I thought about it, the more frustrated I got. Here is someone who has known me for years and we get along fairly well together. But the first moment that she discovered that I didn’t believe in some “higher power” and that there was an inherent, external meaning in all aspects of life, then she immediately discounted every value I maintain for myself. What I believe is worthless, unless it is backed up by some belief in a higher power. And, for her, it was obviously the One Christian God.

I cannot fathom this approach to life. Many people seem to think that if this life doesn’t have some basis, some EXTERNAL meaning, then it is worthless. What a load of rubbish. Life is what you make of it. It can be terrible and depressing. Or, it can be fulfilling, inspired and uplifting. Life is what you make of it. I do not understand why people must force an external framework on it for them to feel happy and secure. There isn’t meaning in a newborn baby? Or inspired works of art and music? Or watching a hummingbird flit around the garden? The list can go on and on. Yet, many people seem to think that if they don’t have the Christian God backing up their every move or are able to look forward to heaven, then everything is worthless.

I was reading a newspaper story the other day, which was really heartbreaking. An older couple had already lost their house, due to the very serious illness of the wife. I believe it was cancer, and she was probably not going to survive it. They truly were going through some terrible times. But one quote by the husband threw me. He said something like, “Our faith is the only thing that is keeping us going. If we didn’t have that, we might as well jump off a cliff.”

I found that astounding. If there isn’t a God or a Heaven, we might as well all kill ourselves right now....

I suppose that one statement, along with the conversation I had with my co-worker, shows why the Religious and the Non-Religious will never understand each other. They can’t understand why we non-believers want to go on living if we don’t believe in any supernatural deity. We can’t understand their view that, if they don’t have this belief, they would find life not worth living.

Just another reason I find living in today’s society so damn depressing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I apologize for the lack of posting activity here.

I have just been overwhelmed and terribly depressed about the whole political state of the country (see my other blog, Barking Rabbits, if you are really interested...). I just can't even work myself into a state to put together any sort of rational, halfway interesting thoughts about religion. Sorry about that. Keep checking in from time to time, tho. You never know.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Noah's Ark must have been REALLY big.

I just got back from a trip to Washington D.C. I was mostly working but did get a chance to see a few things. I spent a few hours in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Of course, there are a large number of dinosaur fossils, both real and cast. But there are also exhibits of animals from the Permian era (before the dinosaurs) and also a large number of mammals and birds that existed after the age of dinosaurs. Some of these were very large indeed.

I had several questions that kept rattling around my mind as I took all this in. One was, do Fundamentalist Christians really expect me to believe, and do they believe themselves, that Noah really put all these creatures on a boat and floated them around for a month or so (30 days and 30 nights)? Do they realize how many species of creatures have existed and we have a fossil record of? One of the favorite responses these days seems to be that Noah brought baby animals, not the full grown ones, so there would be plenty of space. That aside, I still do not understand how any sort of rational person could really and truly believe that two of every kind of land living animal that has ever lived was aboard a boat, all at once. I kept imaging myself having a conversation with a F.C., asking them as we toured the museum, "Was that one on Noah's Ark? How about that one? O.K., that one?" One, long unending question...

The second question was really a follow on to the first one. For the sake of argument, let's say that the answer to the first question I posed is , yes. Noah really did have all these animals on a boat and all these species survived "The Great Flood." Fine. So, where are all these animals now? Are the Fundamentalist Christians saying that all these species have ALL died out in the last 6000 years? Because that is a huge number of species. I have no numbers, but I would imagine that the number of land living animals that have ever lived dwarves the number of species that are actually alive today. If true, that would represent a huge die off of an incredibly large number of species.

Does this not alarm the Fundamentalist Christians at all, that we have lost perhaps 90% of all the species on Earth in the last 6000 years? Because, if that were true, then it would appear that we are in the middle of a huge crisis and I would want to understand where all these animals went and why they are not with us today. Those questions would seem to be terribly significant to the remaining species of this Earth.

But no. I have not seen that question posed before. It is of no consequence to Fundamentalist Christians, because God will take care of everything and it's all part of "God's Grand Plan." Fundamentalist Christians are not very keen on asking themselves questions that might upset their delicate balance of belief in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dinosaur poster from here. Click on the poster for a larger version.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Strange religious practices: Cargo cults

Many things have been written about cargo cults, but you really can only go find out about them if you know about them in the first place. People rarely look something up if they don’t know it exists. This was true for me for the first five decades of my life. I’d never heard of cargo cults before. I thought I would discuss them a bit here.

I’ll rely on Wiki to get the ball rolling here.

A cargo cult is a type of religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. The cults are focused on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture through magic and religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors. Cargo cults developed primarily in remote parts of New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies in the southwest Pacific Ocean, beginning with the first significant arrivals of Westerners in the 19th century. Similar behaviors have, however, also appeared elsewhere in the world.

Cargo cult activity in the Pacific region increased significantly during and immediately after World War II, when large amounts of manpower and materials were brought in by the Japanese and American combatants, and this was observed by the residents of these regions. When the war ended, the military bases were closed and the flow of goods and materials ceased. In an attempt to attract further deliveries of goods, followers of the cults engaged in ritualistic practices such as building crude imitation landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment, and mimicking the behaviour that they had observed of the military personnel operating them.

I will attempt to expand on that last paragraph a bit.

The natives of many islands in the South Pacific hadn't really been exposed to more advanced civilizations until the combatants in WWII descended upon their islands for staging areas. Many islands were outfitted with runways for cargo planes. The entire place become a beehive of activity involving lots of people and strange and wondrous machines. The natives saw all this activity that had absolutely no meaning to them, and it was no doubt their first exposure to airplanes, trucks and bulldozers.

I am certain that this was all very mysterious to these people. They had no knowledge of the war and had never seen technology like this. What is that old saying? It goes something like, “Technology is indistinguishable from magic when a lesser civilization is exposed to a more advanced civilization.” But the natives were able to observe some very tangible outcomes from all this mysterious activity; crates and crates of food, clothing, durable goods and other gifts delivered to the invaders from airplanes and ships. No doubt, this seemed like manna from heaven to the Pacific Islanders. Here were these people who had been scraping along their entire lives for a rather frugal existence, and then these magicians show up with flying machines that deliver lots and lots of stuff. And what do the invaders do to get all this stuff? They go through some very mysterious activities that involve clipboards, forms and radios. Military protocol is very rigid and very ritualistic to those who don’t have a clue to what is going on.

So, we have set the stage. Now, what do you suppose happens to these natives when the war is over and all these strange invaders with their magic machines and strange rituals leave? The first thing that happens is, of course, the natives start to miss all this great stuff that these invaders were able to obtain from their gods. No more food that wasn’t available directly from the island. No more clothes they didn’t make themselves. No more really magical gifts from the gods.

So, the local priest decides that the best way to reconnect with these mysterious and benevolent gods is to restart the rituals. That is, they started doing what they directly observed what the military personnel on their island had done. They built airstrips, airplanes and radios. This seems very reminiscent of an episode of Gilligan’s Island. They mimicked the actions of the military people who filled out forms and called into other bases, all in the hopes that these gods would once again grace them with their manna. To them, it was the ritual that mattered. The natives had no idea about the huge infrastructure behind that radio and those forms on a clipboard. They tried, best they could with their limited information, to recreate the conditions that led to fleets of airplanes delivering all sorts of good stuff from heaven.

I am somewhat hesitant to try to draw any larger conclusions about religion in general from these cults. Readers would probably scoff at any attempt I might make. “Oh, those were just ignorant savages. They didn’t know any better. Besides, that really wasn’t a religion. It was a cult.”

To me, that isn’t a terribly convincing argument. Pronouncing someone as “ignorant” always comes from a specific cultural point of view. Yeah, we can say these people were ignorant. They had no idea of the military might behind the small part they were able to view with their own eyes. I could also make the point that people in Biblical times were also ignorant. They had no idea of science and how big the universe really is. So, calling someone “ignorant” really only means the person or culture you are insulting really doesn’t have the information that you have.

But that’s not my main point. I was just thinking about how odd cargo cults look to anyone not involved in them. Going through the motions of talking on “radios” that were probably built out of wood and building “airstrips” and “airplanes” in the hope that the gods will favor them with more great stuff seems pretty insane to us these days. After all, we know about manufacturing. We understand that airplanes are very complex machines that actually have to be built and flown by people that have a very substantial technological base. We have the internet, for God’s sake! So, yes, the actions of cargo cults look ridiculous and are something to be laughed at or to shake our collective heads at.

But think for a moment. For people outside of any religious organization, don’t the actions of that organization make just as little sense as those of the people involved in cargo cults? I don’t want to pick on an one religion here, but just to take an example, does dunking someone in the water or putting a few drops of water on someone’s forehead really cleanse the soul? Yes, I am purposely using words that strip the actions of the deeply religious ceremony of being Baptized of all the magic and ritual. But, from an outsider’s point of view, that is exactly what it looks like.

Religions and the rituals that are part of those religions really only make sense to those who are deeply involved. If you believe and if you are part of a larger group of people that also believe, then it really doesn’t matter what outsiders think. Your religion, your actions, make perfect sense in the universe as you understand it. Non-believers are heretics and should be shunned or converted. Christians scoff at the many of the beliefs of Muslims. We always hear, with great distain, about the Muslim and his 72 virgins that he will receive in his afterlife. But to someone (like me) who doesn’t believe in either faith, 72 virgins in the afterlife makes just about as much sense as virgin birth or being resurrected after dying on the cross. Or talking on a radio made of wood in an attempt to get the gods to deliver you more stuff.

It’s all a matter of reference. One man’s ignorant cult is another man’s understanding of the universe.

Photo from here.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

How do Fundamentalist Christians believe their interpretation of the Bible is the only true interpretation?

Of course, it is a truism that anyone who firmly believes in their worldview, including religion, believes the view they hold is the true one. If they didn’t, they would change it. That’s how change in view occurs. When someone starts to doubt their viewpoint is true, then they eventually reconcile those doubts or else move to a new worldview.

So, it is no surprise that Fundamentalist Christians believe that they are correct and everyone else is wrong. I have read some quotes from Fundamentalist leaders that expressed a very dim view of the Catholic Church (e.g., it’s a “cult”) and the Jewish faith. Their religion represents the only “true” religion.

I find this a very strange point of view, given the history of Christianity and Judaism. This is only scratching the surface of the very deep history of both institutions, of course. But consider that the current version of the Bible, the King James Bible, consists of the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament, as it is known in Christian circles, is almost identical to the Jewish Bible. Christianity obviously has its roots deep in the Jewish religion and culture. The Jewish Bible is essentially a history of the Jewish people as it was taught several thousand years ago. Christianity eventually split off from the Jewish religion, and that version of Christianity eventually became the Catholic Church. Due to many events in history that I won’t go into, the Protestant faith eventually split from the Catholic Church. Fundamentalist Christians are overwhelmingly Protestant.

I do not understand how someone can believe that their religion, Fundamentalist Protestantism, is correct, when two of its major contributors, Judaism and Catholicism, are regarded as “cults” and regarded with suspicion and distrust. That makes no sense to me. They are essentially saying that the Jewish faith was absolutely correct, there is only One True God, Moses lead his people away from slavery in Egypt and parted the Red Sea in the process, and so on. But as soon as John the Baptist and Jesus Christ shows up, then the Jewish faith is incorrect. It went from 100% correct to 100% wrong. How did that happen? I thought the Jews were God’s chosen people? I do not understand the Christian viewpoint of the Jewish religion. It’s really difficult, in my mind, to dismiss Judaism when it is the foundation of your own religion. How can it be “wrong?”

The same observation goes for the Catholic Church. I certainly do not understand the process by which Protestantism split from Catholicism. But how can some Protestants regard Catholicism as a cult when the two faiths share 95% of their belief systems?

I sometimes believe that some Christians today do not have the slightest sense of the history of their religion.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is the Bible allegory or history?

I would like to explore a point I made in my previous post, which is captured in the title to this one. What is the Bible, exactly? Is it history? Is it allegory? Is it both? (I am sorry, but my mind couldn’t help jumping to that old Saturday Night Live Sketch, “Is it a dessert topping, or a floor wax?”) CAN it be both? Is that even possible?

In light of our understanding of the universe in the 21st Century, it is difficult to take Genesis as a literal description of how the universe was created. Yet, a huge number of Christians take the Bible as factual history. It is no secret that a number of archeological discoveries have correlated at least part of what is in the Bible as being a true account of what happened back then.

As the early books of the Bible are concerned, there is little direct evidence for the characters in the Bible. There is, however, a huge amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence—names, places, business contracts, marriage contracts, migratory patterns. An enormous amount of information in the Bible has been borne out by archeology.

That is as far as the early books of the Bible are concerned, but once we get to later books, like the Book of Kings, for example, there is excellent direct evidence, written records of other emperors, etc. But the early events exist more or less in a historical vacuum and, unfortunately also in an archeological vacuum.

Keep in mind that the same thing that applies in a court of law applies to archeology: Lack of evidence is no evidence of lack. The fact that I haven’t found Abraham’s camel saddle doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t have a camel or a saddle. And, indeed, there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence supporting the basic historicity of the Bible.

Archeology doesn’t definitively prove the Bible, and it certainly doesn’t discredit it. In fact the more we find, the more we see that there’s a tremendous amount of historicity in the text.

In summary, the Bible is not a book of history, yet it contains history and culture, which is more or less borne out by archeology. It’s a book of teachings, and it’s the ideal way to learn the patterns of history. And if we understand that the reason why we’re learning history is to learn lessons, then we have to pay extra special attention to what is going on in the Bible.

Here’s a specific example (from National Geographic News):

Researchers using sophisticated radio-dating techniques have concluded that a tunnel running under ancient Jerusalem was indeed constructed around 700 B.C., during the reign of King Hezekiah, just as it is described in the Bible.

The tunnel, which is about 500 meters (550 yards) long, brings water from the Gihon Springs, located some 300 meters (330 yards) outside the walls of old Jerusalem, to the Siloan Pool inside the ancient city. It was built to protect the city's water supply during an Assyrian siege.

Naturally, Christians and Jews are quite happy when archeological evidence supports Biblical narratives.

The City Of Jerusalem Today

Sept. 11, 2003 ” ”
Modern science has thrown its weight behind Biblical historians, backing their account of an Old Testament king who drove a tunnel under Jerusalem to ensure water supplies for his besieged subjects.

The underwater aqueduct is known as the Siloam Tunnel or “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” in honor of the embattled Hebrew king reputed to have ordered its construction in order to bring water from Gihon Spring, outside the city, to Siloam Pool in Jerusalem’s ancient heart.

Historians have long contended that this event is described in two Old Testament texts, 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:3,4.

These recount how Hezekiah (727-698 B.C.) had to grapple with denying water to the besieging Assyrian king Sennacherib, yet also provide water for the besieged:

“When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, intent on making war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officers and warriors about stopping the flow of the springs outside the city and they supported him.”

“A large force was assembled to stop up all the springs and the wadi that flowed through the land, for otherwise, they thought, the king of Assyria would come and find water in abundance …”

“It was Hezekiah who stopped up the spring of water of Upper Gihon, leading it downward west of the City of David.”
The historical record, however, was only indirect, and no evidence has ever been found that directly links the tunnel to Hezekiah.

Now, however, science has provided powerful backing, thanks to forensic evidence found buried in the tunnel’s walls and the latest tools in chemical analysis.

Israeli scientists took samples from a layer of ancient lime plaster that the tunnellers used to line the aqueduct to prevent the precious water from draining back into the Earth.

They found the plaster — since covered with other protective smotherings over the years — included tiny pieces of bone, rare charcoal and ash to bind it, as well as chips of wood and “extraordinarily well-preserved” plant fragments. Radiocarbon-dating at a laboratory at Oxford University put the age of the wood sample at between 822-796 B.C., and that of two plant samples at 790-760 B.C. and 690-540 B.C. respectively.

That gave a ballpark date of 700 B.C. which also tallied with a radioisotope estimate of an ancient stalactite found in the tunnel’s ceiling. “Our dating agrees well … with the date commonly assigned to King Hezekiah,” the authors said.

“The three independent lines of evidence — radiometric dating, palaeography and the historical record — all converge on about 700 B.C., rendering the Siloam Tunnel the best-dated Iron-Age biblical structure so far.”

There are other examples, such as the finding of Herod’s palace. And, although this story is not contained in the Bible (it is in “The Jewish War” by Josephus), the fortress of Masada is now quite famous and is a destination for many tourists.

Christians and Jews alike are delighted when archeological proof confirms parts of their beliefs. Although no one ever comes out and says this, the implication is that, since parts of the Bible are now obviously true, doesn’t it stand to reason that the rest of the Bible is true as well?

However, as I stated earlier, there are many parts of the Bible that, outside the context of being included in the Bible, would be laughed at if someone were to seriously propose them as true history. It is then that most people recognize that archeology, scientific knowledge and, indeed, logic will be of no help and that the standard response is that the Bible should not be taken as historical fact and that the stories in the Bible are actually allegories from which the Truth must be extracted by the reader.

From Keene Online:

Allegory in the Bible by David E. Teubner

The public has been befuddled for centuries concerning the Bible and its various stories. Today the Genesis story, for example, seems implausible from a scientific perspective. Yet, I suggest (along with others) that the stories in the Old Testament should not be taken literally, but are best understood as allegory. The Ancients (for example, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, the ancient Americans) knew the allegories very well and embedded their esoteric knowledge into narratives for safekeeping. The written language had yet to be systematized, thus a narrative was an excellent way to communicate to the culture at large the beliefs of the shamans or the priests.

Indeed, many people, including, Mr. Teubner, the author of the writing above, go to great lengths to explain Biblical writings in terms of allegory. Again, from Keene Online:

The ancients believed in a dualistic (two-part) aspect of the divinity. The female was know as the Void, Mother, Matter (mater, in Latin) Water or Mary and was seen as the Cosmos. It was believed that the male part of the divinity could not interact directly with the female because the male was thought to be Eternal and Unchangeable. Thus, many ancient myths, describe the god as "sending his seed" or "sending his breath" to effect the Void (the Mother). Other myths talk about the male aspect of the divinity being cut up or fragmented, in effect, planted like a seed into the Material, feminine Void. (see Genesis Explained for more about the creation story).

For reasons that will not be fully explained here, some ancient people believed that the male divine impulse was shattered into fragments (the Big Bang?). These fragments fell through the seven celestial spheres, each of the seven spheres polluting the soul in some way. As a result of decending through the spheres, the fragments became forgetful of their heavenly home. They became "polluted" as they passed through the spheres and entered human (animal) bodies.

As a result, humans became forgetful of their divine inheritance. This divine inheritance was the spark that made us divine, the mixture of breath (Father) and material (Mother). (The pattern, or papa that was laid on the material, mama.)

The Ancients symbolized our very own human body as EGYPT. Egypt was the metaphor for human life as incarnate in an material body. Our bodies contained something divine, planted in effect, in a material (clay) vessel.

Therefore, allegorically speaking, Egypt became the land of bitterness and slavery, the land of forgetfulness:

[The Egyptians] made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. Exodus 1:14

The divine sparks were embedded into the female yet lost their memory of their true source. (The result of the deity being "torn asunder" is what Buddhist call Forgetfulness, or Ignorance.) Who will awaken the forgetful, slumbering sparks of the divine male-force that has been hidden in the female? For the Israelites it was Moses.

I am a very literal person, perhaps too literal for my own good. I have a great deal of difficulty when it comes to symbolism in literature or film. I usually take whatever story is being told at face value. So, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I have difficulty with the concept of taking the Bible as allegory. In fact, it appears to me that the author above is bending over backwards to put some logical sense into a story that, on its surface, appears to be very illogical. I maintain that you could take any sort of literature and find a way to make it meaningful and full of wisdom that the reader must take pains to understand.

For example, what would be the allegorical wisdom of the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Wolves are evil? Little girls are often too gullible for their own good? The wolf is a symbol for Satan, that Satan is everywhere and may even be masquerading as your own grandmother and intends to do you great harm?

Again, my reaction is, what a stupid way to teach a lesson. If you want to teach someone, tell him straight out what it is you want him to know. Why give knowledge to someone in a form that will undoubtedly be misunderstood by a great deal of people, each of them arguing that their interpretation is the one and only correct one? That, to me, is really idiotic.

Yet, that is exactly what many people would have us believe of the Bible. It is a collection of allegory that must be interpreted, and interpreted correctly, in order to extract the knowledge that the authors intended. The writer above claims that, “The Ancients (for example, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, the ancient Americans) knew the allegories very well and embedded their esoteric knowledge into narratives for safekeeping.” How he knows this, he does not say. Perhaps there is literature out there that supports this claim. However, as his main argument rests upon this point, you might think he would provide us information in order that this basic assumption might indeed be a valid one. That would be what scholars would do.

I see absolutely no evidence that the writers of the Biblical texts had any sense of allegory. In fact, I believe it to be exactly the opposite. They intended for these stories to be taken as fact, as the true history of the Jewish people. Their very early readers certainly took them as fact. Current readers take the Bible as fact. For example, arguments today continue whether or not Mary, the mother of Jesus, was really a virgin when she bore Jesus, the baby. This text, for example, is a scholarly examination of whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. However, why is this story also not considered to be allegory as something of higher meaning? A virgin girl bearing a child is certainly something modern science would look upon with great skepticism. But yet, that is taken as a fact.

To me, it appears that Christians and Jews would like to have it both ways. When historical evidence backs up their beliefs, they take great pleasure in announcing this to the world. “See, my beliefs are validated! The Bible (Christian or Jewish) is true!” On the other hand, when scientific evidence can be used to refute parts of the Bible, the standard response is “Oh, the Bible isn’t meant to be taken literally. It is allegory and it is a great mistake to take it as anything but allegory.”

My question is, how are readers and students supposed to decide? My answer is that they can’t. And this is exactly why we have so much trouble with fundamentalists of all sorts (not just Christians, but also Jews and Muslims) who get to decide for themselves what their particular religious screed actually means. If it is God’s Truth that He hates gays and lesbians, then viola! Their hatred of gay people is validated. If God’s Truth is that the Earth is 6000 years old, then most, if not all, science is pure bunk and dinosaurs lived during the same time period as man, because their views don’t allow for anything different.

The biggest problem, in my view, is that people of all persuasions do not want to look at their belief system using logic and rational thinking. Their beliefs are spiritual and would be somehow be demeaned if any logical introspection were to be used.

I do not understand this. I really don’t. If there is a God and He created mankind in His own image, I can’t imagine that He would give us the ability to think and reason and not want us to use it. Modern Christianity, for example, seems to want to suppress logic and curiosity. They would have us believe that modern science is no more than alchemy or astrology. If their belief is fervent enough, then that is enough to overcome any obstacle, even when it is scientific proof. That is what occurred when the Church made Galileo recant his view that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. That identical approach is being used today.

Believers should make up their minds. Either the Bible is true history or it is allegory. Either way, there needs to be some additional explanation or guidance given, because right now, how mankind views religion is a huge mixed up mess and yet, no one except a few people really want to take that one on. This is to mankind’s detriment.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

God certainly hates Moloch, doesn’t He?

According to Liviticus 20:

20:1 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

20:2 Again, thou shalt say to the children of Israel, Whosoever he be of the children of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that giveth any of his seed unto Molech; he shall surely be put to death: the people of the land shall stone him with stones.

20:3 And I will set my face against that man, and will cut him off from among his people; because he hath given of his seed unto Molech, to defile my sanctuary, and to profane my holy name.

20:4 And if the people of the land do any ways hide their eyes from the man, when he giveth of his seed unto Molech, and kill him not:

20:5 Then I will set my face against that man, and against his family, and will cut him off, and all that go a whoring after him, to commit whoredom with Molech, from among their people.

20:6 And the soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards, to go a whoring after them, I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people.

20:7 Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy: for I am the LORD your God.

20:8 And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am the LORD which sanctify you.

And who is this Molech, you might ask? According to the All Knowing, All Seeing Wiki:

Moloch, Molech, Molekh, Molek, or Moloc, representing Semitic מולך m-l-k, (a root which occurs in various Hebrew and Arabic words related to kings) is either the name of a god or the name of a particular kind of sacrifice associated with fire. Moloch was historically affiliated with cultures throughout the Middle East, including the Ammonite, Hebrew, Canaanite,[1] Phoenician and related cultures in North Africa and the Levant.

O.K., false god and all that. Got it. Yahweh detests false gods, as we well know.

It appears that, back in Biblical times, “knowing” believers in any god(s) or goddess(es) other than the One True God and getting them pregnant was a big time problem. The One True God really had a distinct problem with this, as He commands His followers to stone to death any of His followers or any non-believers that just happened to be wandering around in Israel if they had the presumptuousness to get a lady pregnant who also worshipped Moloch. Stoning to death seems very harsh for a Compassionate and Forgiving God. That sounds neither compassionate nor forgiving. That particular sentence seems very harsh and unforgiving. Throwing stones at someone, bashing them in the head and body, until their bodily functions stop, presumably due to loss of blood and traumatic injuries, would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in my book.

These verses in the Bible are emblematic of a very thorny problem for me. They are not relevant, and they are ancient anachronisms that have zero relevance to today’s complex and law-based society. First off, how many worshippers of Moloch does anyone know? I have never come across any, although I will be the first to admit that I run in pretty small circles of society these days. I did once know a practicing Wiccan with whom I spent a very interesting All Hallow’s Eve back in my college days. But that’s about it. Nope, I know of no followers of Moloch, certainly none who I would consider getting pregnant. But then, if I am not in the current country of Israel, then maybe God’s commandment is not in force? It’s difficult to tell.

I am just pointing out that prohibitions against getting a follower of Moloch pregnant have very little relevance in today’s society.

However, the bigger problem is, of course, what God commands his followers to do to anyone they find has violated said commandment. God, the One True God, the Kind and Benevolent God, really desires people who go to church on Sundays, who dress up in their best Easter outfits on Easter, who probably belong to the Kiwanis Club or Elks Club, who take their kids to the baseball games, to go stone people to death? Getting someone pregnant isn’t even a crime these days. And perhaps this guy is married to a nice lady who also happens to worship Moloch, and they have a child while they are married. Does this still apply? The husband gets stoned to death while the wife and kid get off scot free?

No doubt these aspects of the Bible made sense back in 150 B.C. There was no legal system; no courts, no lawyers, no presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Law was whatever the current social mores were at that time. Someone back then, no doubt a follower of early Judaism, thought this was a really good thing to have lying around, especially if it had the weight of the One True God behind it. This person might have had a grudge against someone who worshipped Moloch, maybe someone got his daughter pregnant. “I’ll fix them!” Whatever. It really doesn’t matter where this came from. These kinds of bloodthirsty and unthinking commandments attributed to God have absolutely no place in today’s society. None.

And here’s the crux of the matter. When pressed on issues like this, most Christians will resort to the standard reply, “Oh, the Bible isn’t meant to be taken literally. Much of it is a parable, and you have to read it in that way to find the wisdom it contains.” To which I say, bull pucky. I believe it is terribly, terribly obvious that the authors of the Bible (including all the later revisions, Canonization and collations) fully intended for the entire thing to be taken as fact. There are no literary interpretations to be made, no symbolism, allegory or parables included. The story of Genesis was written to be read as factual history. This is true of all religions. Most every religion contains the story of creation. They also have a very detailed history of the people/tribe who believes that particular religion. That is what binds them together, that sets them off from the rabble. Everyone has their own, true history. The Bible is no different. The Old Testament was to be taken as the literal history of the Jewish people.

The “Good Book” commands you, as a follower of the Christian God, to stone to death anyone who gets a follower of a false god pregnant. That’s what it says to do. End of story.

So, the question then becomes, why does anything that the Bible says about anything have any inherent meaning in today’s society? Why should I believe anything written in the Bible? Because we are now into the realm of picking and choosing whatever passages out of the Bible that you think are applicable. "That one there, that’s good. 'Thou shalt not kill.' I like that one. Wait, doesn’t this one over here say that I should do exactly that, kill someone? This one over here says I should kill my own child if he curses at me. (Exodus 21:17) Wow, that’s pretty severe. God must not really mean that. But I shouldn’t kill anyone, except homosexuals, people who have sex with animals, men who lie with their mothers, and kids who curse at their parents… Wow, that’s really confusing."

See the dilemma here? You can go on forever picking and choosing what you think is and is not “the Word of God” in the Bible. That’s what leads to this insanity in today’s society about homosexuals. People cherry pick whatever “knowledge” they desire out of the Bible, usually something that supports their already formulated position. “See, I believe exactly the same thing that God does!” Isn’t that amazing?

And yet, modern Christianity expects us to exhibit unwavering faith regarding God and Jesus Christ, all based on a book that has been edited multiple times, contains multiple contradictions and ridiculous commandments that have zero relevance in today’s society.

I just don’t understand the need for belief and faith, especially as something as ridiculous and archaic as the Bible. No, I am not saying there aren’t any lessons to be gleaned from the Bible. There are, certainly. But that can be said of the Bhagavad Gita. Or of the Koran. Or the teachings of a Native American shaman. When you apply logic and reason to a reading of the Bible, it becomes nothing more than a collection of ancient beliefs, ancient history and ancient myths and legends that were handed down from generation to generation. That is what the Bible is.

I would be happy to listen to and debate anyone who would like to discuss this subject further. Because, in all truth, I do not understand.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter thoughts....

Heretical thoughts, as it turns out.

I remember hearing about the resurrection of Jesus I was very young, maybe 5 or 6, I suppose. And I also remember, at the time, thinking, "How does everyone know that Jesus came back alive and got out of the cave himself? Why can't someone have just gone in and stolen his body?"

And I think that is still a valid question. That is, if the entire thing of resurrection is to believed anyway. There are some biblical scholars who believe that entire episode might have been added into the Bible at a later date. However, that aside, my first reaction to finding something missing after it was there the day before is, "Hey, someone stole it!" I am not sure why everyone just seemed to leap on the entire resurrection story immediately. That is, of course, unless those same people were the ones who had a stake in selling the idea that Jesus was the Son of God.

Happy Easter.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Where did God come from?

This is not intended to be a rhetorical question. Really, where did He (or She) come from? According to Christianity, He is Eternal. That means He has been around forever. Literally. Forever.

Does that make any sense whatsoever? There isn’t even a beginning of forever. God has always existed. No one created Him. He just always was there.

I have trouble with that concept. At least with the current cosmological models, time, space and matter are so intertwined that time didn’t even exist before the universe was created in the Big Bang some 150 to 300 billions of years ago. I do admit, that concept is also quite difficult to assimilate. But yet, it seems it has to be either one way or the other. Time had a beginning, or it didn’t. And I have much more difficulty accepting the “time had no beginning” concept.

So, God has existed forever and ever. And remember, the Bible tells us that God “created the heavens and the earth.” That essentially means that, before God created all that stuff, there wasn’t anything, as “heavens and the earth” pretty much encompasses everything there is in the universe. And it follows, then, that God existed but had nowhere to exist. Where was it that God resided when He did all this creating?

And, as I have questioned before, 6000 years ago or so, God just decided to create the heavens and the earth? He was bored? He had been waiting for all eternity to do that? How is it that “the heavens and the earth” aren’t extremely old? 6000 years ago is not really all that long a time, when compared to eternity.

Questons, questions.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Where does God fit in to the universe as we know it today?

This is somewhat of a rhetorical question, but I am rather serious. Where does God fit in? Is He the Ultimate Creator of the vast universe? Or is He the moral judge and jury of each and every action of each and every person on Earth? If He exists, could He be both? That seems to be a ridiculous concept. Why would an entity who is capable of creating the cosmos itself concern Himself with whether or not an individual actually believes in Him or whether or not an individual is in love with a person of the same sex?

The Bible that we know was written over a period of hundreds of years, many aspects having their origins in verbal traditions and stories handed down for who knows how long. For example, many scholars believe that the story of Noah and the Great Flood in Genesis is based on the Mesopotamian legend of Gilgamesh. It only makes sense that the inhabitants of the ancient world attempted to explain their environment in terms that made sense to them. They had very little science in which to explain their very mysterious surroundings. It is difficult not to notice that the Bible discusses God only as He relates to the inhabitants of the Middle East. God apparently was not very interested in North and South America, Europe and Asia in those days. That was the universe that the authors of the Bible knew, and therefore, that is what they wrote about.

Mankind’s understanding of the universe in which we live has expanded greatly since those days, to say the least. The universe in which the authors of the Bible resided may have covered an area with a radius of perhaps one thousand miles, with the center of the universe being somewhere in present day Israel. The universe that we know today is filled with literally billions of galaxies that are composed of billions of stars, with the distances between those galaxies being too immense to even contemplate. That’s quite a difference. Several thousand years ago, the very mysterious ways of God was a very valid explanation for the unexplainable. A plague of locusts? Twenty five hundred years ago, you must have made God very angry to smite you with such a plague. Today, we know that many factors go into a plague of locusts, such as breeding cycles, available food, weather patterns, and overpopulation and crowding of the locusts themselves. We do not need God to explain such phenomena. The same observation applies to earthquakes, volcanoes, disease, famine, floods, and so on. We do not need to invoke God to explain these natural phenomena.

I have long argued that it is not the purview of science to try to prove or disprove the existence of God. No scientist with integrity should ever try to claim that is what he is doing. Science deals with facts and hypotheses based on those facts, in order to explain the workings of some aspect of the universe. God, by definition, is beyond knowing, beyond description and beyond proof. Besides, even if God was something more tangible, scientists also realize it is practically impossible to prove that something doesn’t exist.

However, the point I am making with this post is that a thinking, inquisitive person can certainly come to his or her own conclusions, based on what science is telling us about the universe we inhabit. That is the point I am making. I am not trying to assert the science can prove that God doesn’t exist. The distinction I am making, I admit, is rather fuzzy and can certainly be willfully misconstrued by someone who is ready to jump on anyone that they believe is trying to undermine their belief system. But that is the entire point of a philosophical discussion, isn’t it? I am not saying that science can be used to prove the non-existence of God. I am giving my personal conclusions using all the data that I have available. I just want to make that plain to anyone who might want to comment on this post.

Where is God and why did He construct the strange and complex universe, through centuries of scientific probing, that we know it to be? If God is so concerned about the day-to-day dealings of a puny little race of puny and imperfect creatures that inhabit portions of an insignificant planet that revolves around a non-descript star in a galaxy filled with hundreds of millions of stars of all descriptions, why did He make the universe so damn big and so very, very strange? Particles that can act as waves when you measure them in the correct way? A universe made up of eleven dimensions? Black holes where time as we know it ceases to exist? What possible reasons might there be for such concepts if mankind is the reason God created the Heaven and the Earth?

If I were God, I believe I would have made the universe the one, infinite plane that people of long ago thought the world to be. That certainly is the simplest model. But we live on a huge ball that is spinning rapidly through a vast ocean of nothingness, warmed by a much larger ball of burning gas that is millions of miles away. We take this concept for granted now, because we have all been taught this model of the universe since we were old enough to learn about such things. But when you really take a step back and think about that, the concept is very odd indeed. I have no problem with understanding how bizarre this must have seemed to the people of Galileo’s era when he proposed it.

I have been accused of a lack of imagination when I have said such things in the past. Perhaps. I have known for some time that I am a very literal person. On the other hand, perhaps those who believe in God do so because God fulfills some basic psychic need, to have the unexplainable explained. Where do we go when we die? Are we just a collection of very complex molecules that happened to converge in a way that results in the person we see every morning when we look in the mirror? Do we have souls? What is a soul? Why is there so much suffering in the world? Is there an afterlife? There must be meaning to life, mustn’t there?

I think those are the questions without answers that believers want answered. My own interpretation of the universe as I see it is that there is no more meaning to it than you can observe. It is what it is. There is, always has been and always will be, pain, suffering an anguish through a person’s life. That person’s individual choices may have a lot do to with his life, but many things are outside of his control. Providence. Luck, or the lack of it, is not fair but that is how things are. Baby zebras may get eaten by lions within days of being born. Young people who have everything to live for and have their entire lives in front of them die from hideous diseases. If you happen to be extremely fortunate, you might be born into a royal family where (if you live long enough) you might eventually become king, pharaoh or chief. If you are less fortunate, you may be born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Alabama in 1835. You may be hit by a car going the wrong way on the freeway, driven by some slob who has had eight drinks in the past two hours. Your town may be leveled by a tornado, where even if you were lucky enough to survive, everything you have owned and worked for your entire life is gone.

There is no grand plan. No one is any more or less deserving of their fortune (or lack thereof) than the next person. And most certainly, God is not sitting in a Golden Throne, looking down upon every single human being with a critical eye, waiting to bestow great misfortune upon them. Human beings are born, they live their lives and they die. There is no afterlife. There is no soul. There is no heavenly reward waiting for you because you were a) a very kind and caring person or b) managed to kill a couple of infidels by blowing yourself up along with them. There is no inherent meaning to your life. None.

My theory about religion is that most humans cannot accept answers like these. They provide a view of the universe that is too bleak for most people. All this pain and suffering must have a reason, must ultimately be rewarded, shouldn’t it? I saw this in action a number of years ago on a website where a number of posters got to know each other, as much as you can over the internet. One very nice lady who I liked a lot and corresponded with had an aunt, I believe, who was dying of cancer. She believed in God and was talking about how her aunt would be soon in a better place. Some other slob of a poster who really needed some interpersonal skills counseling, barged in to this emotional situation and said that there is no God and it was useless to think about her aunt in Heaven, or something to that effect. My friend got extremely upset. If this were an face-to-face discussion, I am certain she would have been shouting. She was saying, “Are you telling me that I should just tell my aunt there is no God? That all this means nothing? That she is enduring all this pain for nothing? Is that what you want me to tell my aunt?” Essentially, yes, that is what this poster was saying and my friend could not even countenance that idea. She was so incensed by the fact that anyone would even suggest such a thing about a loved one who was in the last stages of her life, she literally became unglued. I am sure that the thought of her aunt, who was very dear to her, was about to die was already very upsetting to her. But more upsetting was the very thought that there is not an afterlife, there is not a Heaven to which a suffering person may soon retire and find bliss.

I felt very sorry for her, in a very unhappy and undefined way.

I cannot help but think that my beliefs and attitudes could very easily be interpreted as looking down on those whose belief system is not the same as mine. That is not truly my intent, as I am just basing what I am saying on my observations of the universe and the facts that we know about it. I am certainly not trying to say that I am better than any other person who does not believe that science takes precedent over faith. However, to be perfectly honest about it, I will readily admit that I do not understand the mindset of the believers of the Judeo-Christian religions when there is so much evidence that points to the contrary. However, there is obviously something I am missing, as a large majority of the population of the United States professes a belief in God of one flavor or another. Why do I not feel the same way? Why do I not feel a need to have these questions resolved by very comforting answers? Am I that cynical? Is it, as my friend said, that I am that unimaginative? Or am I too in love with science, such that it has become my own personal God that I have placed upon a pedestal, never to be questioned?

I have my own answers to these questions, such that I am at peace with myself in that regard. I can go to my deathbed and not concern myself with throwing myself on the mercies of God before I pass on. I am not worried about spending the rest of eternity in the Hell envisioned by Hieronymus Bosch. I believe that I understand and accept the limitations of science and what it can and cannot tell us about the universe we inhabit. But I also feel that I inhabit an almost completely different plane of existence than do Christians. There can never be any understanding between us. We may arrive at a mutual understanding to not question each other’s beliefs or become too snobby or insulting. But there is no understanding, because our view of the universe is in complete opposition to the others. There is no ultimate truth, because each of us looks upon the other with complete and utter non-comprehension.

A final thought: How could God make a universe that is so grand and mysterious and make such an utter hash on the job that He did on Mankind?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How to choose your religion scientifically.

This is from several places, via OnePissedOffVet. Go there and look at all the links...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

"Good science" vs. "Bad science"

I have written before about the scientific method, but I’ll give a quick little summary here, for all you humanities majors out there.

You start with a set of what should be undisputable facts or observations. “See, that big barn over there on my neighbor’s property? It’s red. Right?” It’s something that everyone can, or should be able to, readily agree to. Then you start asking, “Well, how did it come to be red?” You might start making a hypothesis that explains your questions about whatever it is that you have observed. “See that guy over there? He’s my neighbor. It’s his barn. He probably just got finished painting it that color.” Of course, you don’t know for certain that your neighbor just painted the barn. However, there are all sorts of clues that your supposition might be a true one. That’s your theory. You just have to go about figuring out if your theory is valid or not, such that other people armed with the same starting point and facts as you will come up with the same conclusion. You are out to give validity to your theory.

The reason I said “give validity to” instead of “proving” is that the term “proof” implies absolute certainty in something. Many times in science, there will never be 100% certainty of something. However, if you can get your theory in good enough shape that your peers agree with your conclusion and no one can really come up with either 1) major points your theory doesn’t address or ) a better alternative, then people start using the word “proof.”

Anyway, to get back to my red barn analogy… There may be a number of ways you might go about trying to figure out if your neighbor painted his barn red. For instance, you could ask him. If he says “Yes, I did. Do you have a problem with that?”, then your work is pretty much at an end. Unless, of course, someone calls your neighbor a liar or, even better, comes up and declares, “No, I painted the barn! Don’t listen to that man!” Then you are kind of stuck. You now have two competing conclusions that cannot simultaneously both be true. You now need some additional input about why your original theory might be the correct one.

Say you observe that your neighbor is holding an open can of red paint. Additionally, he is also holding a paint brush full of wet red paint, his pants and shirt are all covered in very wet paint, and there are red footprints leading from the barn directly to where he is standing. This is getting very close to becoming your “proof.” You have convinced yourself, your wife and anyone else who will listen. However, those people may not actually know anything about painting. Or barns. Or perhaps they just don’t really care one way or the other.

Therefore, the next thing you need to do is get your peers (those who DO care about painting, barns and painting barns red) to agree with your conclusions about why that barn is red. You may go speak at a conference specializing in barn construction and circulate a paper you wrote on the subject of your neighbor and his barn. You might write an article for “Barns Monthly” magazine and “The Journal of National Association of Animal Husbandry Buildings”. Those, of course, are the most widely read publications for those who care about such things. Your peers read your article and most come to an agreement that, yes, you are correct in your starting point (it is indeed a barn and it is red) and how it got that way. Yes! You have triumphed! You are the King of the World! Fame and a lucrative speaking career beckon.

However, the next month, you might receive a letter from one of your rivals. He puts forward an alternative hypothesis. “No, the barn is red because the local lumber company, five miles down the road from your neighbor’s barn, is selling barn siding that is already painted red. Your neighbor bought his lumber there. I have a copy of his receipt.”

Your first reaction is, of course, “Oh, crap!” Your finely crafted case about how your neighbor’s barn came to be red is about to come crashing down around your ears. Utter humiliation awaits. Your wife isn’t speaking to you and your dog bit your hand when you tried to pet him. You must do something to rectify this terrible situation. Immediately, if not sooner.

So, it appears obvious that your theory needs to evolve to take these new facts, which are not really open to dispute (sale on red lumber, copy of the sales receipt) into account. Aha! You have it! Yes, your neighbor bought lumber already painted red, but he didn’t use it to build his barn! He used it to build a garage instead! Your original hypothesis is still sound! How else do you explain the wet, red paintbrush, the open can of paint and the footprints?

And so it goes. The reason I went on at such length about such a seemingly trivial and/or stupid scenario is that I wanted to put what really happens during the scientific method into a concept that non-scientists could easily understand. Even with its dramatic oversimplifications and stupid analogies, the scenario above gives an approximation about how the scientific method actually works. To repeat, this is how my “good science” of my title works. It doesn’t matter what kind of answer you get. It’s the process that matters! Start with facts. Make a hypothesis that fits the facts and answers all open questions. Peer reviews. Continually adjust your hypothesis whenever new facts come to light or when someone points out where your logic is not sound.

Here are the points I want to highlight. There are rarely absolute proofs to anything. You might have a model of understanding that comes very, very close to answering all the open questions about some phenomena. Maybe not all questions, but your theory works very well. Or maybe, your theory does indeed answer all open questions, until the day that someone either asks a new question that no one has ever thought of before, or perhaps some new facts or observations are uncovered that now cast some doubt on your hypothesis.

A very good and very understandable example of this is of Newtonian physics. You remember Sir Isaac Newton, don’t you? The chap who got bonked on the head with the apple? Described his theory of universal gravitation? One of the most influential scientists and mathematicians to have ever lived? Yeah, him. His theories worked incredibly well to describe how gravity affects our world. You could use it to set the elevation of your cannon so that your cannonball hits the enemy over across the valley. Terribly useful stuff. Newtonian physics ruled the day.

However, when one gets looking closer, it appears that Newtonian physics doesn’t exactly predict the motion really big things, like planets, when you start examining it in detail. Surprise! It turned out that Newtonian physics was only an approximation. It didn’t predict everything that it should. And the closer that people starting examining the facts and data, the more it appeared that there were some major shortcomings into his theories. Enter Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the floodgates were opened.

I don’t want to get into a history lesson about classical vs. modern physics. That would be pretty tedious. My point is that Newtonian physics was never The One True Answer. Oh, you got very good predictions about how everyday objects react. But it was never more than an approximation. At the scale we cared about, those approximations did not matter. You never saw the errors because they were so small. Now, mathematicians, astronomers, physicists and cosmologists are getting into some very, very strange and disturbing theories about the universe. They are nowhere near the classical Newtonian physics. However, Newtonian physics still predicts some things, like that apple or that cannon shot, extremely well. So, was Newton’s theory wrong? Or right?

I apologize about how long it has taken me to reach this point, but I am now getting to what I really wanted to discuss. This is what really upsets me when I hear religious fundamentalists or ideologue conservatives talk about something like evolution or global warming in absolute terms. They obviously do not understand the scientific method. They just do not. There are very, very few absolutes. Black/white answers are sometimes only aren’t possible; they are also a pipe dream. And something you may be absolutely certain about one day can crumble right before your eyes with the introduction of a new set of data. That does not mean you were totally incorrect! That just means you need to go back to the drawing board. Your theory may need just a tweak, or it may need to be totally scrapped. You don’t know until you start digging into it, armed with your newly acquired facts and data.

The one “criticism” that I hear about the theory of evolution is “It’s only a theory!” Of course it’s only a theory! Jeez. That’s a really, really dumb thing to say. So is the theory of gravity. Do you disagree that gravity exists? Of course not. But the explanation we currently have as to why gravity exists is incomplete. Those scientists and mathematicians who work out on the esoteric edges of their fields may feel they are getting close to having an answer (hint: it’s called M Theory and involves a universe made up of eleven dimensions), but they are not there yet. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot of the answers already worked out. “It’s only a theory!” is not a valid criticism! That’s how the process works! Anthropologists, geneticists and researchers in many other fields agree that evolution is a fact. They just cannot explain every aspect. There are still many unanswered questions. So what? That does not mean that the entire concept is wrong! It just means it is still a work in progress.

Another problem that seems to occur in today’s society is that we demand everything be “dumbed down” to the point that every single person feels that they must be able to understand something before they will admit it to be true. If they can’t understand it, then, by definition, it isn’t true. What hogwash. Experts in a field are experts for a reason; they know more than you do about something! That’s what makes them an expert! There is a reason it takes eight years plus to get through college and earn a Ph.D. in something. It’s complex! It’s difficult! Their conclusions do have more validity than yours do! You probably don’t know jack about the subject, if you really want to get to the heart of the matter.

Yet another problem is that many people seem to feel that they are free to disagree with a scientific conclusion if it doesn’t support their already set-in-concrete opinions. If science doesn’t come to the conclusion that they wanted it to, then it becomes “bad science.” The Earth’s climate is actually getting warmer, and the activities of mankind are a major contributing factor. The Earth is much, much older than 6000 years. Evolution in living things does indeed occur. Earth is not at the center of the universe, nor does the sun revolve around the Earth. On and on… Many people throughout history have taken a very dim view of scientific conclusions that are at odds with a position in which they have a vested interest (e.g., the Church, Galileo, and is the Earth at the center of the universe or not?). The scientific method does not care if you have just had the rug jerked out from beneath your feet. That's too bad, but that is your problem, not science's. Deal with it.

It does not matter to the scientific method what the answer turns out to be. You cannot dictate your preferred answers to the scientific method. That’s dishonest and manipulative. You must start with the question, make a hypothesis and then end up with a convincing answer! You cannot start with the answer first! Nor can you object to the facts and observations that the scientific method started from. The barn really is red. It is not green. To say otherwise is false and it makes the holder of such views look like an idiot. That is what bad science is; it is not science that doesn’t give you the answer you wanted.

In the last 25 years--but it has really picked up speed in the last 10 years--our society has devalued science and the answers it can provide. Sometimes we may not like the answer. That doesn’t mean science is somehow wrong or bad. It just means that we should probably either adjust our way of thinking or possibly do something to change the outcome that the scientific method is predicting. That might be anything from cutting the emissions of greenhouse gasses significantly to perhaps realizing that evolution is not necessarily in conflict with the existence of God.

What we have now is a society that values opinions more than answers reached by the scientific method. And, the current thinking goes, the more fervently you believe in something, the better chance it has of being true. This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. That is the way that civilizations collapse. They cannot cope with the reality that will ultimately come crashing down on their/our collective heads.

Photo from here.

Cross-posted at Barking Rabbits and MadMike'sAmerica.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“If the Earth is only 6000 years old, then why…?” Question number 43.

I am continually amazed at the number of people who insist, for no other reason that the Bible implies that Adam showed up on the Earth about the same time it was created, that the Earth is relatively young. In fact, most fundamentalists insist they know the age of the Earth is approximately 6000 years old. Why do they know this? From Starryskies:

The Judeo-Christian belief that the Earth was 6000 years old is still argued by some fundamentalists though they are a tiny minority. They steadfastly base their beliefs on the fact that the Old Testament in their bible is an accurate and literal history of the world. This belief was given a boost in 1642 by John Lightfoot, a distinguished Greek scholar and Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University who got very specific and said that the moment of creation was 9:00 AM, September 17th, 3928 BC. It’s hazy just how he arrived at this figure but it had something to do with adding up all those "begats" in the ancestries of people mentioned.

And that is how fundamentalists are absolutely certain the Earth is 6000 years old. Because someone in the 17th century (which is nowhere near Biblical times) calculated the number of people “begat-ing” other people in the Book of Genesis and then did a little math. Genesis helpfully gives the age of the people involved (Enos lived to the ripe old age of 90, and apparently Kenan lived to be an astounding nine hundred and ten years old), so that M. Lightfoot could add up the numbers and come up with a number close to 6000 years. And that is reason enough, in logic of most fundamentalists, to disregard all scientific findings from a multitude of scientific fields that concludes the Earth is over a billion years old.

Here is the question I wanted to pose. I just felt like doing a little setup about where this premise of a 6000 year old Earth is actually coming from. This is a very easy-to-understand thought experiment that doesn’t even require any of that pesky scientific logic that fundamentalists look down their noses at. Look at the pictures that accompany this post. They show (in the following order) the surfaces of the Earth’s moon, the planet Mercury and Callisto, a moon of Jupiter. Each of these bodies inhabits a distinctly different area of our solar system. What is the obvious similarity between these bodies?

The answer is each of these bodies is heavily cratered. If you look closely, you can see areas of craters within other craters that are within even older craters. Each of these craters represents a huge impact from an incoming object that struck the surface of the moon/planet sometime in its distant past. Now, how many years might it have taken to have each of these bodies to be struck by so many objects that the craters cover every square mile of the moon’s/planet’s surface (that hasn’t been resurfaced by some geologic activity)? We can’t know for certain. But, for the sake of comparison, how many of these collisions do we see today? Well, we know of three such events since mankind has had the technology that would enable us to see them; Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in July of 1994 and another comet or asteroid in July of 2009, both impacting the planet Jupiter and the Tunguska event in Russia in 1908. July seems to be a very bad month for Jupiter.

In the celestial, non-fundamentalist time frame, that is a very short slice of time. However, in the 6000 year fundamentalist time frame, 100 years is getting to be a significant percentage. Three known impacts per 100 years isn't that much, certainly not enough to account for the massive amount of cratering we see on a majority of the planets and moons that have surfaces that are not being continually eroded or refreshed. However, three known impacts per 100 years seems to indicate that there are still lots of objects out in our solar system, just waiting for their chance to plaster the planets and their moons. However, even at that rate of three or four impacts somewhere in our solar system every 25 years, that still would indicate that these bodies have been around a lot longer than 6000 years in order to build up the very impressive scar tissue indicative of small, large and huge impacts from comets, asteroids and meteors. 6000 years does not seem nearly enough time, especially since material such as the Bible itself does not mention anything about King David and his impressive army dodging incoming meteors. If the Bible is the only source of ancient history that can be trusted (apparently), then all those impacts from other-worldly intruders must have happened before mankind showed up and could see such events with our own eyes. Because, if those impacts happened, they surely would have been talked about somewhere in the Bible, correct?

Now, as an added argument, what is missing from the Earth that these other bodies have? The same craters; they are, for the most part, nowhere to be found on the surface of the Earth. There are a few exceptions, such as Meteor Crater in Arizona. So, what happened to the evidence of the rest of the impacts that the Earth must have sustained during its early life? They were obliterated due to natural erosion and constant resurfacing that the Earth’s surface continually undergoes. How long must that have taken, to get rid of all visual evidence of the craters that must have been here? Quite some time, given how “fresh” Meteor Crater appears to be. I suppose, if you do support the notion that God created the entire universe, that He also could have somehow “protected” the Earth from such impacts, such that there never were any craters, while our nearby Moon got continually pounded. But then, Meteor Crater and the Tunguska object become problematic. God apparently didn’t do a terribly thorough job of protecting the Earth.

(It occurs to me that someone, I suppose, could argue that The Great Flood wiped away all traces of meteor and comet impacts from the surface of the Earth. Fundamentalists use The Flood to explain quite a lot of things, such as why there are fossils of fishes and other sea creatures that are found high in the mountains, quite a distance away from any body of water. Given that leap, it's plausible that someone could make the same claim regarding the non-existence of impact craters on the Earth. However, there is still that pesky point that the Bible doesn't mention anything about these impacts. And, according to these 6000-year-old-Earthers, the Bible is the one and only source of true information.)

With this (hopefully) easy-to-understand thought experiment, it seems more than obvious that the solar system is much, much older than 6000 years.

So, my question to those believing that the Earth is around 6000 years old is the following. Why is someone in the 17th Century counting up the “begats” of all the Biblical characters and using their sometimes unbelievable ages to calculate the age of the Earth more compelling than using your eyes and your mind to come to an obvious and immediate conclusion that the age of our solar system, and therefore our own Earth, is very ancient? Please enlighten me. I am all ears.

Picture of the moon’s surface from

Picture of Jupiter’s moon, Callisto, from

Picture of Mercury from

Cross-posted at MadMike'sAmerica.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

How important is the human species, really?

This is a newly released photo of galaxy cluster Abell 370 taken by the Hubble Telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope is, at this point in time, one of the greatest achievements of human history. The science and technology behind this instrument is astounding, and that isn’t even saying anything about the discoveries that have been aided by the existence of the Hubble.

But that isn’t what I want to talk about here. I just want to speculate a bit about the role of human beings in the Grand Scheme of Things.

Take a close look at that photograph. Most of the objects captured in this extraordinary image are not stars. They are galaxies, similar to our own Milky Way. I would estimate there are anywhere from one hundred to three hundred galaxies show in that photo. That photo represents one very small fraction of the entire sky. There are literally billions of galaxies in the universe. Billions. In turn, each galaxy is made up of anywhere from as few as several million stars (such as globular clusters) to tens of billions of stars. It takes light about 150,000 years, traveling at 186,000 miles per second, to travel from one side of the rim of a typical galaxy like ours to the opposite side.

Now let's take a look at our smaller, more understandable solar system, where we are talking about a single star out of the literally trillions of stars that currently exist. It takes light around eight and one third minutes to travel the 93 million miles from our sun to the Earth. Probes sent to the outer planets, although they usually take a very circuitous route to take advantage of gravity assists, take years to get from Earth wherever they are going. This demonstrates that even our local neighborhood, which is a very tiny place indeed in the midst of all these billions of stars in the billions of galaxies, is a still incomprehensibly large.

Human beings cannot comprehend how large the universe really is. Astronomers and cosmologists really only understand it because they deal with that immensity every day of their lives. Everyone else deals with the universe on a scale that makes sense to them. Many Americans, for instance, do not seem to understand that there is an entire world of people and cultures that exist outside of their town, their state or their country. It’s no wonder that they cannot really grasp what the universe seems to be about.

Ancient cultures always put themselves at the center of the universe, because they had never experienced anything outside their culture. I do not want to get into what historically happens when cultures collide, or when one culture decides, for whatever reason, to pick up their stakes and move to an entirely new location. That is not the subject I want to explore here. My point is that the universe to ancient cultures was usually a very small place. To the inhabitants of Easter Island, the universe consisted of their island and the ocean. Native American cultures may have viewed their universe as a few hundred miles surrounding Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. That was all they knew, so their customs and legends grew out of the belief that there was very little of interest beyond what they knew. “Here Be Dragons” was a warning that was placed on the white areas of maps.

I have taken a bit of time to set up my premise of this post. Most every culture in the history of mankind, it seems, has viewed itself as “God’s Chosen People.” These cultures had no reason to believe otherwise. Every culture seems to have had its own creation myth, to explain how the universe came into being. Part of this creation myth must also address how the People came into being. Some Native American cultures believed that they were descended from the beings who inhabited the underworld. Usually, the word that Native Americans used for themselves translated into something akin to “The People.” That meant, everyone else was not the part of tribe of true humans. They were “something else.” Only the People were The People.

Christianity seems to me to be no different. There is the creation myth; “God created the Heaven and the Earth.” There is the explanation of where humans beings came from; they are descended from Adam and Eve, who were themselves created directly by God. The ancient Jews became known to themselves as “God’s Chosen People.

The point that I am making about these religious views that people hold regarding themselves is that they invariably put those people at the center of the universe. They are the only thing that matter. God or other diety is intimately involved in the lives, beliefs, actions and traditions of the Chosen People. There is no detail too small in the lives of the Chosen People. If you did things that God disapproved of, or even thought “inappropriate thoughts”, then God would be mightly displeased and you put your immortal soul at risk about going to Heaven or going to sit with your elders in the sky when you die.

Take a look at that picture again, and think about the immensity that we are talking about. Billions of galaxies, each with billions of stars, seperated by distances so vast that light takes millions of years to travel between them. If God created the Heaven and the Earth, then He created all of this.

My question is, if humans are the center of God’s attention, then what is the rest of the universe for? In the “big picture” scheme of things, it appears to me that humans are totally inconsequential. Galaxies gobble up other galaxies. Monstrous black holes suck up everything, including light, that comes within their event horizon. Suns explode in supernovas, taking out everything in the neighborhood. Our own sun, which seems to benign and has been the focus of so many religions in the history of mankind, is destined for this very fate. Earth will not survive this explosion.

Mankind is the center of God’s attention, such that He cares about whether you believe in Him or not? Or whether you think “impure thoughts?” He cares about whether or not someone engaged in extramartial sex? He cares about whether or not someone is gay, or that gay people might be allowed to be married to each other? I have heard, on a number of occasions, the basketball teams at Christian schools pray before every game, praying that playing the game of basketball “glorifies God.” I am sorry, but I fail to see how God could possibly be interested in such trivialities by a very small group of people on a tiny part of a tiny planet in a remote part of the Milky Way galaxy.

I have used this argument before, and I was accused of “not having an imagination.” Perhaps. But perhaps all the believers of God or whatever other diety they pray to suffer from microscopic vision, such that they cannot change their point of view that puts them at the center of the universe. To me, that is what happens when you teach a child, as soon as they are old enough to comprehend spoken language, that we ARE at the center of the universe and God DOES take microscopic interest in our daily lives.

If humans are indeed the center of God’s attention, then it seems that, to me, God is terribly extravegant and a very large showoff. Why wouldn’t the Earth be a big flat plane, just as people without science always envisioned it to be? That certainly would have been more focused.

I believe that the universe is a vast, mysterious and wonderous place. The things that science has discovered, and are continually discovering, about the place we inhabit are truly mindbending. I do not need an explanation that includes God to understand how amazing and wonderful it is that we even exist.

Monday, September 7, 2009

On Faith.

When I used to ask questions regarding religion when I was a kid, the answers I usually got were “God works in mysterious ways”, “We weren’t meant to understand” and “You just have to have Faith.” Even the 11 year old I was on the time thought answers like these were cop outs. They didn’t answer any questions. They just deflected them, such that answers weren’t necessary.

Faith. I really hate that one. To me, that means you have to believe, and believe fervently, without the support of any facts or observable evidence. We are supposed to turn off our logical, fact based thought processes and just accept what is written in some book whose origins are pretty obscure at best that was written anywhere from 1800 to 2500 years ago. You know, back before humans had the basics of scientific understanding about the universe we live in. Oh, we were actually pretty good at math back then. The stone monuments and calendars we have left from that period demonstrate that. But scientific knowledge? No, we did not have that.

Yet, I am being asked to believe, to have “faith”, in a supernatural being that ancient people believed in before people even understood that the Earth was a sphere and the miniscule role it plays in the universe. I am expected to accept this without question. Additionally, I am supposed to choose this specific religion, again without facts, over the myriad of other religions that currently exist today. This one here (let’s just call it “Christianity” for the sake of discussion) is The One Truth, and all those over there (say, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and even variants, both greater and lesser, of Christianity itself) are “false” religions.

God really expects us to make that choice on Faith alone, without any supporting evidence? That’s a pretty insane expectation, if He knows anything about human beings. Which, given that He made us in His own image and all that, He really should have known how this would all turn out.

God is omnipresent and omniscient, yet He couldn’t see what a crummy system this was and that mankind would wage neverending wars in His name over which religion that everyone is supposed to take on Faith alone?

And guess what? There’s a bonus question! If you get your answer wrong, the one that was based solely on Faith without any supporting evidence, you are an infidel and destined to go to Hell for all eternity! And it doesn’t matter if you were brought up in the middle of Pakistan, where the chances of you learning about Christianity in a positive light are as near to zero as things are ever going to get. You are damned and will suffer eternal torment because you never even had a chance.

This sounds so much like a rigged carnival game, where you get sucked in by slick barkers into investing more and more money, only to lose it all in the end. It would be funny if it weren’t all so sad. This is how I see the world’s societies today. Look at all the wasted human lives and incredible suffering that has been self-inflicted, all in the name of this or that religion. Now, I am not saying that, without religion, life on Earth would somehow become a paradise. It wouldn’t. Human beings are stupid, mean, territorial creatures that would find plenty of other reasons to kill and impoverish our fellow humans without bringing our version of mythology into the picture. But, throughout the centuries, stop and take a minute to reflect on all the pain, hardship and suffering humans have endured, all because some group wanted to force their religion upon another group.

Faith. What a rotten word.