Sunday, February 27, 2005

Skepticism vs. Cynicism

I think there is a misconception out there, well, maybe it’s more of a mis-perception. I think when people hear the word skeptic they think the word cynic. A cynic is no fun. A cynic pooh poohs everything. Nothing is good. We’re all going to hell in a hand basket. Everybody is a liar. All politicians are crooks (well, they be right on with that one), all athletes are assholes, all modern art is crap, etc. That’s a cynic.

A skeptic on the other hand is not annoying. A skeptic just asks the question, “Really? Are you sure? How do you know that? Can it be duplicated? Can it be made to happen at will? When somebody says, “You know a spaceship landed in my yard and the little guys inside came out and beat my ass at chess.” The skeptic asks, “Really? Any pictures? Burn marks in your yard? Did you resign or get check-mated?” We all agree that those and others would be reasonable questions.


When somebody says, “Yeah, this bush was burning and yet not consumed and a voice came out of it.” and the skeptic says, “Really? Any pictures? Can it be made to happen again? What was the bush like when it was over? Was it real fire?” he is considered to be a cynic. Or worse…a heretic! Why? Why in our everyday life is it generally considered a good thing to be a little skeptical but not when it comes to questions of religion? Someone who is not a little skeptical is the brunt of jokes. Like every joke about a country bumpkin coming to the big city or jokes about people getting fleeced by a used car salesman. Nobody wants to be that vulnerable, country bumpkin piece of meat. No, we’d like to think we are all a little sharper than that which means we view the world with a nice dose of skepticism. Then why not be a little skeptical with the huge and life changing claims made by religion?

This goes back to the two world problem of wanting the real and the magical to exist at the same time. It’s like people who are all for equal rights for all people…as long as they don’t buy the house next door. Be as skeptical as you like but not with my religion buddy!


When talking with theists you'll often find the argument of incredulity.

"I just can't imagine the beauty and complexity of the human mind without their also being a creator".

This is an example of how the argument is usually formed. Of course one's inability to understand something or to not understand something cannot be a basis for the existence of something else. What people don' t full understand is how complicated things evlove from less complicated things given the power of millions of years to do its thing.

They'll say, "Don't you just see the hand of a creator in all this beauty?" No. The theist already believes in a creator and is arguing backwards not in a truly sceptical way.

"Explain love then! I can't imagine why we would love one another without also imagining a god."

First off, look around. We don't exactly seem all that crazy about each other. Secondly, which kinds of tribes would have a better chance of survival: ones where nobody cared about anyone else or ones where they supported each ohter. Which genes are going to be passed on? Your own because you'll defend your own family more then you'll give in to an outsider. It is a much more reasonable argument to imagine how people would evlove in a natural way to be caring of their blood brothers than it is to imagine an unseen god who works by magical ways that are not even consistant.

So watch out for this argument. It is actually no argument at all but just another admission as to what somebody doesn't fully understand.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Main Rant

Here is the main argument. Sorry, it's a little long. I'll use this blog to post my musings about the puzzle that is religion. I look forward to comments from all.

On Religion

I guess I understand why some people turn to religion but it seems incredible to me that religion has lasted this long and has 95% of the people one way or another. Is its popularity and staying power because people are lazy? Are we afraid to drop old ideas. Are we seduced by the empty promise of everlasting life? Afraid to head into that dark night alone?
I think religion served two main purposes over the years. 1. Religion provides a possible explanation for natural phenomena. When you are a hard working and honest yet ignorant sheppard, the motions of the sun and stars, storms and tornadoes might be explained by the battling forces of unseen gods and goddesses. We do like a good story and why not have the gods more or less look like us but be bigger and more powerful.
2. Religion then becomes a way to marshal people into a common set of moral values. One must not anger the aforementioned gods lest you get a tornado up your ass. This is a very powerful tool for creating viable societies. You can keep most of the people in line by simply supporting or at least not taxing their church.
So as long as we stay ignorant, religion provides us with a world view that explains natural phenomena including the beginning of the world as well as a set of moral laws. Life after death is the carrot while punishment by an all powerful deity in the form of locust, flood or eternal damnation is the stick.
No wonder Galileo got so much heat for trying to find things out for himself. Once this cat was out of the bag trouble begins to brew. Now we begin to test things for ourselves. We find that our objective reality is explainable via reasonable laws of nature that are of a mathematical and predictive nature. One by one the gods are not needed as explainers of what we see going on around us. Finally the universe itself seems to follow the same basic laws that we have tested on earth. Such things as conservation of energy and charge seem to be truly universally true.
So, if the gods were invented to explain natural phenomena but are no longer needed for that role, why do we continue to believe in them?
When we teach little kids that god made the whole world and the birds and the trees, we actually know that is not true. We have a very good model of how the earth and its creatures slowly evolved over the eons. Why do we teach little kids what we know to be a lie? Perhaps we are anxious to get them into the fold for the moral side of religion. If we donÕt sell them the whole package we canÕt sell them the moral component. It is all or nothing. So we continue to wrap ourselves in the little Sunday school stories (which are impossible to be true) for the sake of deferring our moral teaching to an unseen deity. Is that it?
It is even worse, maybe. The more frightened you are of asking big questions and so forth the more secure you are in your religion and the more it is in your interest to have some say in running the religion. In other words the more mystical and irrational your thinking the higher you will rise in your religion. How is that for backwards promotion? These people (popes, and other popular preachers) can end up wielding real power. Nixon often consulted with Billy Graham. Yikes!

When will governments realize that it is NOT in their best interests to make decisions based on faith? Too many of the basic tenents of religion lead to war, slavery, and overpopoulation. The real catch-22 here is that making faith-based decisions will lead to re-election! If anybody came right out and declared themselves an atheist with a smart logical and compasionate mind they'd never get a vote and if they were somehow already in office, they'd be run out of town on a rail!
What is it we are so afraid of?

The two world paradox

Here is the big problem religion has that they don't really want to admit. On one hand they'd like to believe that an all powerful deity is REAL and that he can or has directly affected life on earth. On the other hand, to be a deity, one has to be not of this world or supernatural. If god really became part of our everyday (had his own web site for example) that would defeat the whole idea of religion. So their problem is that they want a god that is real and not of this reality at the same time.

An outcropping of the two world paradox is the concept of prayer. The faithful pray and believe that they are communicating directly with god. If this is a REAL communication then it should be detectable. If it is real, then there is a way that it works. But again, if prayer became REAL it would no longer be prayer. Is it not reasonable to ask someone exactly how the message gets through to god? If there is no mechanism or evidence that a message gets through then why do people do it?

A recent test done at Harvard showed no effect when sick patients were prayed for.

Faith or whistling through the grave yard

OK, somewhere in here the faithful will tell me that I just don't get the concept of faith. You have to have faith that your prayers are getting through. You have to have faith that god is taking care of you and has your interests in mind. But there is no real prescribed way to do this and no evidence that it works. Faith then is like hoping. I hope the dice come up 7, oh please, please, please come on seven! I'm reminded of the cowardly lion when Dorothy got snatched away standing there with his eyes closed repeating over and over again, I do believe in spooks, I do believe spooks, I do,I do, I do I do I do believe in spooks,....

To have faith then is to defer. You defer some of your control over your own life to sessions of hoping things will somehow work out all right. This is a beautiful arrangement. Now when you have ignored something that you should have taken care of and you know you should have, you instead pray that it will be fixed and when it is not you still bear none of the blame because the Lord do work in mysterious ways!

The Unexplainable

I think there is an all pervading idea over much of the human population that there is a set of unexplainable phenomena out there. Some of this is of a religious nature in the form of miracles and so forth and some is like flying saucers, Bermuda triangle and that sort of thing. I think there is a desire to believe that the unexplainable exists a-priori -that we live in a world in which some things are explainable and some are just not. Notice I don't mean, unexplained but fundamentally unexplainable by their nature. Some things just 'happen' and there is no reason. I especially hated the 'shit happens' bumper stickers. This sort of mood then sets the stage for religion to step right in. It fits into that world view. Take a look at the nightly TV offerings and see how many shows are based on some sort of mysticism. By the very plethora of shows doesn't that mean that SOMETHING magical is going on out there? NO, it sure doesn't. It only means that such shows are popular.

What could it really mean to say something is 'unexplainable' by its very nature? First of all it has to be real and experienced by more than one person. I guess it would be a one-time event or at least be totally unpredictable in its timing. If we could 'make it happen' we'd know how we made it happen and then it wouldn't be unexplainable. OK so there is an event and 10 people witness it. What properties would it have to make it unexplainable? I'm stuck. How could you ever tell the difference between unexplainable and not explained yet? If you had in your hand the blueprint of the event that showed how it was 'unexplainable' you'd understand it and it would therefore be explained! Therefore there can be no such thing as an unexplainable event only not explained yet.

Here's where the religious always think they got you. They ask such things as, so can you explain where the universe came from? Ah Ha! you cannot so therefore why not god? Why indeed? Why does my lack of an answer support their god hypothesis. Some things are not known yet. This provides no evidence for a deity. Or, they say, "you can't explain everything with science". This is really a loaded statement. It either means that science can't explain such things as beauty or love or it means that there are some things out there that science has yet to explain. In either case, the fact that I would admit to both things, neither thing allows the faithful to conclude that god then exists. The scientist can't explain beauty but I'll say that god IS beauty and therefore I'm right. This just doesn't scan.

I've noticed that some of the faithful get very frustrated if you even attempt a logical argument. Somehow this seems off the point to them and ugly by its nature. OK, then you can't have god part of this reality then. This goes back to the big two world problem.

The scary part is that there are real decisions being made out there that affect the lives of everyone, the faithful and the atheist alike that are being made on the basis of god. Once again we allow the god world to be part of the real world when it suits us and then remove him from the real world when challenged on his reality! How convenient. I'm happy that we have separation of church and state in this country but we could do a lot better. We need separation of mystical-decision-making and state.

The 'authority gene'

One possible explanation for the continuation of religion way beyond its real usefulness is that many people want to follow. The basic tenets of any religion are based on authority. Things are taken as TRUE because they came from a higher authority and they cannot therefore be questioned. This gives the human a place to stop the incessant questioning that any brain can generate. "Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is death like"? Etc. These insanity inducing questions have a stop gap with religion - god made it so. There. This simple answer to complex questions is apparently very satisfying to a large number of people. Is that "bad"? I'm not so sure it is bad in this context. What is bad is living a life of simple answers to complicated questions the directly affect your life or the lives of others.


One of the most infuriating attitudes to deal with is the idea that belief in a deity constitutes a moral life and atheism constitutes a life that is bereft of a moral center. How does this even follow? Let's not even mention all the evil that has been done in the world in the name of religion. I'm just talking the logic or lack thereof itself. This goes back to the original origins of religion as a set of moral laws to keep the gods happy. Infuriating squared is when you get the snotty attitude that "god still loves you...even though you are an atheist".
In fact, is it possible to adopt a religion's moral laws while denying the existence of a deity? I think some of Jesus' ideas about living a moral and just life are pretty right on. His facination with eternal damnation and his dim view of women I can do without, however. Can I not be a skeptical 'Christian' while not believing all the hocus pocus stuff. ATHEISTS FOR CHIRST! Did Jesus himself ever really come out and declare himself the son of god or was that laid on him later to keep the religion going? Let's face it, we're talking a 2000 year old text. How are we sure who is really talking when the New Testament quotes Jesus?

Somehow if you say to people, "look, if we all behave this certain way we generally get along better and it is in all of our interests to do so", they won't believe you or follow you. But if you present them with the same set of laws and say an unseen god has declared these to be true and just, they will line up faster than you can say Jesus h. Christ!

The Problem with Heaven

Certainly one of the main draws of religion is the promise that death won't actually be death. The human mind always stutters when it really considers the fact that there will be a time when we are no longer alive. Nonexistence is such a hard concept to wrap your mind around it is not surprising that we glom onto a promise that there will be something else afterwards. Hey, as long as we are making promises, lets make the hereafter much better than life on earth even though we would probably settle for less given the alternative! This story is such an obvious softening of the world. When a pet dies we feel bad for the little kid so we make up a story about pet heaven to ease their pain. We are supposed to be the grown-ups though. There are so many problems with this it's hard to know where to start...

Time - "Everlasting life". Now that's a long time. Will I sense the passage of time in the hereafter? If I will still be 'me' what will I do? I don't think a being could sense time and at the same 'time' go on for an infinite amount of time. No matter what you did it would take 0% of your remaining time. You'd go insane.

Place - Here we go again. We want heaven to be 'real' but it is not actually of this world. If it is not a place then what is it. If it is a state of mind but my mind is dead...where am I? Ok, it is my immortal soul but is that a real thing? If it is not a real thing, how is eternal life a real thing? It was easy to have heaven be in the clouds thousands of years ago since the sky was as unreachable as the center of the Galaxy is now. But now we know that all visible places are really of this reality. Where does that leave heaven?

The Misuse of the idea of 'belief'

On occasion you'll get the following argument. A theist will get exasperated and say, "well ok then, you believe what you want and I'll believe what I want. It's all the same." No, it's not all the same. I am proposing that the universe is reasonable and predictive. I have tons of evidence to show that it is so. I can make predictions on future events based on simple laws and test to see if it comes out that way. The theist cannot do the same. You can not put up belief in an invisible all powerful deity as if it were on par with my reasonable universe. Mine is NOT based on belief but on a healthy skeptism. It is exactly this skeptism under which religion crumbles.
Moreover, if you have a creator-god that can supercede the basic laws of physics to perform miracles and create something out of nothing then why did he create a universe that has any laws of physics at all. Why not all magic? Random, unexplainable events? Why?

What if I'm stupid?

OK, let's play god's (!) advocate. Maybe I just don't get it. Maybe I am just stuck in this local cycle of logic and cannot see the bigger picture in which god makes perfect sense. Let me now try to think of ways in which god could exist in a reasonable universe.

1. God exists but is completely disassociated with the world. He created the universe, set it in motion and has since left it on its own. This is rather like no god then. I have a bit of an explanation for the creation of the universe (but not much) and that's it. I don't think a theist believes in this kind of god. You don't get much bang for you buck here.
2. God exists but not in an external way. God exists inside of me personally and to each person in their own way. At first this might be seen so solve the problem of 'where?' but not really. Again we come to the real versus the supernatural. Are we talking about a real thing that could be detected by the skeptical inquirer? How are all the individual gods connected to be the same super god? I don't really see any of the above problems being solved by putting god inside.
3. Maybe the way god works is so incredibly complicated and so many light years beyond anything I could possibly understand that I am forced to accept his existence and truly have faith that the entire machinery works. Maybe this 3D world and my laws of physics are just a tiny, tiny particle of the actual reality out there. Maybe I look at the world through a long thin tube and think I am seeing the whole thing when in fact most of it is hidden from me. If I could have the mind of god would I see the world as finally, ultimately logical as I think it is but a kabillion times more complicated and subtle than I could have ever imagined or would I see a universe that is all metaphor and love and feeling and logic was just a temporary or local effect of the near sighted mind? Hmmmmmm...... I'm not sure where to go with this. It is almost the same as the disinterested god except let's say that god is involved with things on earth but the mechanism is so incredibly complex that I can never unravel it for myself. I can only accept the whole package but never get the mechanism. I guess this is the 'god works in mysterious ways' argument. God works in complicated multi-dimensional ways. I am reminded of the star trek episode where the savage tribe think Jean Luc is a god. There was no way to drag them through all the logical and technological details to convince them that he was not really a god in supernatural way. Perhaps we are but savages and at this point there is no way for god to show us anything that we could understand. Then, how did we get the idea in the first place? How come we don't all have the same idea (different religions)? This is an interesting line of reasoning but I'm not sure it really leads anywhere.
4. The truth of god comes to each person in a vision. You receive all the truth and information at once. Until then you simply won't understand. This is the fundamentalist (read pod-people) point of view I think. In a dramatic turn of events a person suddenly considers themself saved. You are either a pod-person like this or you are waiting for it to happen. Again, all the former problems are raised. How does this transformation happen? Is it real? Is there a detectable communication from somewhere to the individual? If not, what are you really talking about?

Argument by metaphor

The theists will give you arguments that are not logic at all but sound pleasing to the ear. Sophistry if you will. 'You have to take god into your heart.' This is pure metaphor. It takes us nowhere. 'Jesus died for your sins.' What? If you try to chase this line of arguing you get nowhere. A theist will look at you like a teacher looks at a slow student, 'you just don't get it'. Correct! I don't get it and you don't seem to be able to explain it to me. Well, its not an explaining kind of thing...either you have god in your heart or you don't. And here we go again.

The God idea as a paradigm for living

Why have I never heard this from someone: Look, don't get all wrapped up in logical existence arguments when it comes to god. I like the idea of a loving god as a paradigm for living. I believe that if I subscribe to this idea and live my life accordingly then I live at a little higher level, I treat others better and I am just an all around better person if I use the old stories and lessons as a template for living. The realness of it all is of no importance. The reality is that the stories give me a way to live and a moral center that I think is fair. Also, since there are a large number of us who think in a like minded way, it leads to a community out of which more good could come then if we were separate individuals. Do I really believe I'm going to heaven? Probably not. But I like a life and a community where we behave as if we were.

This I can understand. A person like this would have no ax to grind when it came to the big bang or evolution. This person doesn't have to have a real and an unreal god at the same time. This person would be ok with me being an atheist as just another way to live a life. Have I invented a person that does not exist? Is there any religion that would cop to god as paradigm?

In a Star Trek Episode (yes, again) Warf is telling the old Klingon stories to a group of Klingons that have been removed from their roots for some time. The stories are tall tales much like you find in the bible. When asked if he thought the stories were true he replied, "I find different truths each time I read them". Interesting.

The Human Ego
Perhaps one of the main ideas we are unable to blast ourselves out of is the idea that we are somehow special on this planet. I can see how we got that idea. We happen to be the only intelligent beings on the planet. We are the only ones (perhaps) that understand 'I am'. We are conscious of our own consciousness. We are clever and we are toolmakers. We have an elaborate commincation system - both verbal and written. Early on we viewed the earth as Us and everything else. When you feel you are special, even when it is unwarranted, you can make all sorts of mistakes.
First of all this view allows you to desimate the other creatures and trash up the earth. When you do not really consider yourself part of the earth you don't mind trashing it up. Especially for profit.
Secondly, you can now more easily make a connection to a creator who made us so special. Get this: we are so taken with ourselves that we can only imagine that a supernatural god created us. What hubris! When Darwin made the obvious connections in the Orignin of the Species, no wonder it was so violently opposed. If we are just another species on the planet then why would there be a creator? If we can emerge from the ooze spontaneously, what is god's role? If we are not special how do we explain all the years of planet destruction? The American Indians and probably some other cultures did not see themselves as separate from the world of animals, plants and the earth itself. When the indians called the river their brother we thought they were waxing metaphorically but they most literaly DID consider the river their brother. They would no more piss in the river than that would on their true brother. They didn't have a high and mighty place for themselves in the universe, just their appropriate place. When they killed a beast it was for food and furs unlike dropping thousands upon thousands of buffalo by shooting them from moving trains - their carcases littering the prairie as far as the eye could see.
So how is it that the 'savages' of North America didn't see themselves as separate from the earth itself while the 'civilized' europeans did? Were not the europeans savages once? What happened? If left alone would the american indians have begun to see themselves as separate also?
Once again I am puzzled by the big question as to how things got this way? If we could wipe everybody's memory of all thoughts of religion and supernatural beings and have a fresh start tomorrow would we now invent gods and demons? Would it occur to us that maybe there is a creator and maybe we should begin to pray to him? I'm pretty sure all our thoughts about religion have been passed on from the now forgotten past. We've drug these ideas behind us like an anvil dragging behind a cart. I don't think we'd ever just go tie an anvil to our cart now if no one told us to.

I don't hold out much hope for this planet. I think in the future, religion will be our ultimate downfall. We can't stop making babies because god wants us to. We can't stop polluting the planet because we feel we are special. We have the right to hate and kill other humans who have a different belief in a different invisible and unprovable god. Ultimately these things will conspire to throw the entire world into a true, cateclismic world war. There is only so much fresh water on this spaceship. Wait and see how ugly things get when entire nations find their water supplies drying up or so polluted they can't drink it. When there are so many screaming babies who are hungry and thirsty and nothing can be done. Nations will just lash out for survival and they'll find a way to have their religion rationalize it. I only hope that humans are totally decimated to the point where the animals rule once again or that humans are just totally obiliterated from the planet. The best thing that could happen is that the decimation would include all reference to gods and religion or that someone would have the insight to see that that was what was causing all the trouble in the first place and we could get a new god-less start. I doubt that will happen though. If even 10 people are left on the planet, they will probably think that they were hand picked by god for survival and that they are now extra-extra-special. And so it will go. On and on.

The only hope is to start a group now that would continue after and be dedicated to creating new, religion free societies. If this group could grow and keep themselves safe from the decimation that is to come so that they would be the dominate group later, maybe we would have a chance. The group would have to be secret because when the lashing out starts, the godless are going to be the first to go then you lash out at the guy with the bad religion. Certainly the 'god fearing' will blame any large group of atheists as being the cause of all the trouble. So, how do you begin to prepare for all this destruction and not make a big splash? How do you prepare a place for the rational people out there without giving away the secret? I'm reminded of the small society that was prepared to take over in Atlas Shrugged as they simply let society fall under its own inertia. Hmmmmm.....

Well, anyway...Here's a quote I found. I was surfing some websites dedicated to atheism. They left me uninspired. Some are out for outright religion bashing or trying to get a hunk of the political pie. I couldn't find any reference to building a society that could go on after the fall. Here's the quote:

"The teachings of all the Master Teachers, of all the world's religions, contain some Truth along with a lot of distortions and lies. Discerning Truth is often like recovering treasure from shipwrecks that have been sitting on the ocean floor for hundreds of years - the grains of Truth, the nuggets of gold, have become encrusted with garbage over the years."