The Science of Faith

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I am writing this in response to attacks on the TV show Cosmos by religious believers.  Cosmos represents a litmus test about the public’s understanding of science.  The series represents an overview of what science has learned in the last four hundred years.  Despite all the efforts of modern secular education, I think many of the ideas presented in Cosmos are new to a majority of the public.  Science and technology succeed in our society without the majority of the population even understanding it.

Cosmos represents a good consensus of what science knows about reality, and yet it is often in conflict with many people’s personal beliefs about how reality works because of their religious education.  Whether they accept it or not, science is in direct conflict with religion.

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Religion is wildly popular  because people want to believe.  People want to believe because of psychological needs.  Religion is 100% hope for certain fantasies to be true.  Believers validate their beliefs by getting other people to share their hopes.  But, what if the faithful applied the rigor of philosophy and the discipline of science to their religion?  Truth about reality is revealed not through our personal desires, but through what works for all people.

Why are there so many different religions, sects, creeds, beliefs if they are true?  They can’t all be true.  Why is there little consensus among believers, and much contention and hatred?  Religious wars are infamous for their cruelty.  Now the faithful feel under siege by science.  And some even invent pseudo-sciences to defend their beliefs.  If their beliefs were an actual feature of reality wouldn’t they be universal and testable?

Instead of attacking science, or making up fake science, the faithful should apply science to their beliefs.  First, they should find the core beliefs they all share and develop a consensus as to what is true about God or gods.  Anything your religion believes that all the other religions don’t, should be immediately crossed off the list of things that are probably true.  If something is universally true, it should be universally believed by all people.  False beliefs can be infinite because we can imagine anything, but universal truths should be finite because reality only works one way.  What are the universal truths in religious beliefs?  If a religious concept doesn’t apply to all humans on Earth, or even all aliens on every planet in the multiverse, then it should be doubted.

Science works by seeking such universal truths, and this is why the faithful feel under attack.  Not only does science work in a consistent manner, with a fantastic track record, but it’s truth works the same for Americans and Chinese, for Russians and Iranians.  Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus can barely agree on anything amongst themselves, much less with other religions.  If the religious really want to prove themselves, they need to band together and make one religion.  The obvious reason why religion is false is because there are too many of them.

If you are a firm believer in any metaphysical concept, you have to consider it a desire on your part unless you can find consensus with others.  That’s why religious people are so big on converting new recruits.  Getting someone else to believe like you do, validates your own fantasies.  If you really want to believe in something that’s true outside of your head, you need to be more scientific.  Any belief you hold that isn’t shared by a majority of the other seven billion people on this planet should be considered suspect.  Science succeeds because it’s under constant suspect.  Ideas have to taking a beating and keep on ticking – by everyone.

Even if six billion believers get together and form an absolute consensus on Laws of Religious Concepts, it won’t necessarily mean these beliefs are true without additional proof.  If the consensus is there is one God and that God listens to everyone’s prayers, then you need to test this hypothesis.  Let’s say every day six billion people all pray for the same unique thing each day.  If the prayers are answered repeatedly over years, then you can assume your theory is correct.  If it is not, you will have to alter your theory to there is a God but he doesn’t listen to people.  You will need to find a way to test this hypothesis.

However, even without scientific proof, the beliefs of the faithful can never be considered real unless they find more consensus.  Religious minded people would help their cause if they sought agreement rather than constantly splintering into smaller groups.  You can’t beat science by altering the rules of science.  You can’t beat science by lying about it.  You can’t beat science by putting your head into the sand.

I can think of two beliefs that a majority of religious believers might embrace.  One, there is a creator.  Two, the Golden Rule.  And those two might still cause a lot of arguments.  But beyond that, there is little agreement among the faithful.  Which to me, means there’s little reason to believe them.

Instead of attacking science, the religious should embrace each other.  You can’t elevate religion by undermining science.  Religions have always succeeded by war – by killing the unbelievers.  If you want to prove your religion is true, prove what you believe, not what everyone else believes is false.  Science succeeds because it proves what’s true, what works.

My challenge to the faithful, start proving your beliefs work universally.  I’ll consider the first step towards that proof when all religions become one.

JWH – 4/7/14

Who Is Watching Us If There Is No God?

One of the prime appeals of religion is a father figure who watches over everyone and everything.  I’m a lifelong atheist, so I don’t think about a personal God who listens and watches over me.  Yet, I know that the faithful need a higher power they feel is watching over them.  That desire to be noticed is very important to most people.  People cling to the concept of God for just a few reasons despite all the endless varieties of religions and their verbose theologies.  They don’t want to die, they want to be protected, they want someone to always care about them, and they want divine justice.

Last night I watched TB Silent Killer on the PBS documentary series Frontline.  This incredibly intense show on drug resistant tuberculosis in Africa was very hard to see, but I think very important not to miss.  Follow the link to watch the show.  It answers my question:  Who is watching us if there is no God?  We have to watch each other, either personally, or by films like this, or on the news, or by any other form of journalism, and even by the Internet and smartphones.  People have always wanted a God to watch over us, but as we evolve and learn about the scientific nature of reality, it’s obvious there is no father figure watching us 24×7.

What people want is to be saved from death and suffering.  The people in TB Silent Killer suffered greatly for months and years, and often died.  They felt no one was watching, that no one cared, and most importantly, no one would rescue them from their fates.  And they hated the unfairness that they were sick when others were not.  It wasn’t a just reality to them.  Watch this film to see how deeply you care, and contemplate possible answers.

As a self-aware species, and as we become enlightened and realize there is no magic in the sky, we have to learn how to create substitutes for all those hopes we put into God.  We really do want a superior being that cares for every sparrow that falls from a tree.  I can understand that desire.  I believe the human race has to become its own father figure.  We have to care for everyone else on Earth, and for all the animals too.  We have to learn to answer each other’s prayers.

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At end end of the show they asked each person what hope they had.  Most of the people were waiting for death, for after years of suffering, their hope of being rescued was long gone.  But the little girl they featured, Nokubheka, said she wanted people to invent safe pills that would cure TB.  She had been taking highly toxic medicines for months.  And she was right.  The way to answer her prayer is for science to find a cure for TB.  That should be something everyone wants because TB is airborne and it’s fast becoming drug resistant.  The show teaches about MDR TB (multi-drug-resistant TB) and XDR TB (extensively drug-resistant TB).  Remember how AIDS began in Africa, well it was a hard to spread retrovirus.  TB is very easy to spread, and it’s airborne.  You don’t have to have sex with the infected to catch it, just stand near them.  Yes, you should watch this show.  You should care.

While watching the show I also wondered how else we could help these people, or anyone that suffers a horrible disease like them.  All the victims in this documentary talked about being lonely, afraid, isolated, and bored.  Because of their contagion, they have to be isolated, but I wondered if they would have been happier if they had the Internet or smartphones.  Maybe a charity could be created that provides a social network for the sick and dying – one that would create a sense of being watched and cared for.  Call it The Sparrow.  It might even be a substitute for the desire to have a caring father figure watch over them.

When it comes down to it, we can plead for magic from an invisible being, or we can answer our own prayers with our own real abilities.

JWH – 3/26/14

The Theological Implications of the Multiverse

Because of recent research in gravity waves and inflation, the theory of the multiverse moves further toward reality.  While creationists are still fighting for equal time to oppose the 1859 theory of evolution, science has gone on to discover endless other aspects of reality that counter the Biblical view.  I don’t know why creationists focus so exclusively on evolution when millions of other scientific discoveries are also thorns in their theological sides.

When humanity thought the Earth was the center of everything, contained within the celestial spheres, it was possible to imagine our reality being constructed by a super being, especially if you believed the whole thing was only 6,000 years old.  Even then it was an extremely far out idea to buy.  After the sun was moved to the center of the universe, and Earth was just the third planet, it became a lot harder to imagine a God that could create the solar system with some kind of magic spell.  For a long while after that, we assumed all of reality was the Milky Way galaxy.

As reality got bigger, it got harder to imagine a single being creating it.  But still, reality was manageable with just a billion stars.  Then Edwin Hubble came along and showed us reality is composed of billions of galaxies.  How can any theology handle a reality that big?

If we live in a multiverse, it might not be billions of universes, but an infinity of them.  Or there might be another layer, so there are billions of multiverses in a megaverse.  It seems science can’t find any end to large or small, nor a beginning of time.  This has got to wipe out all ancient theological theories.  It’s time to start over.  Reality is too big for any kind of God, and we’re too small for any kind of special consideration.

Humanity needs to start over and throw out all theology and come up with a new working hypothesis about our place in reality.  Instead of thinking of ourselves as the crown of creation, we need see ourselves closer to an intelligent virus that accidently came about through random evolution with no  higher being watching.  Seen from orbiting telescopes, humans are little smudges that have infected this planet.  We’re quite deadly, killing off most of the other life forms on Earth.

We have a decision to make.  Shall we take responsibility for our actions?  There is no God judging us.  We only judge ourselves.  And it might not even be possible for our species to become fully conscious of its actions and act.  We might breed ourselves out of existence.  It should be pretty obvious to all by now that no God will intercede.  We will not be punished if we don’t act, nor will we be rewarded if we do.  We merely can choose to act.  We can preserve ourselves, other species, and the planet Earth – for a while. 

Nothing last forever in the multiverse.

Please read.

JWH – 3/24/14

A Choice of Two Creation Stories: Cosmos v. The Book of Genesis

Although the new documentary series Cosmos is a science show, it can also be seen as a creation myth.  It tells how the universe was created and how people came about.  This puts it in direct competition with all other creation myths, such as The Book of GenesisCosmos represents the creation myth of 2014.  Trying to find a date for when the Book of Genesis was written is very hard.  We don’t know when or who wrote it, but there is great speculation, both by scholars and the faithful.  Unfortunately the faithful have come up with endless theories to when The Book of Genesis was written and by who.  Some of them are very creative, but they are all self-serving, in that they are meant to validate a particular view of religion.  Let’s just say The Book of Genesis was orally created thousands of years ago, before written language, before history, before science, before philosophy, before most every kind of systematic form of learning that we know today.

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My point here, is we’re constantly creating stories to explain reality and our origins.  Three thousand years from now, the science of Cosmos will seem quaint – maybe as quaint as The Book of Genesis seems to most educated people today.  And maybe there will be a small segment of the population that clings to the ideas of Cosmos 2014 because it rationalizes some idea we treasure now but is rejected in the future.

Young Earth Creationism is the idea that reality has only existed for about 6,000 years and any suggestion that anything is older is a challenge to their theory.  Basically, these believers do everything possible to rationalize that The Book of Genesis is literally true, even though its full of internal inconsistencies.  They believe Moses wrote the first five books of The Bible around 1445 BC, even though Moses is a character that comes generations later.  They’ve even come up with an idea of how Moses could have done this, The Tablet Theory.

Cosmos is based on science, and science claims to be based on directly studying reality.  Because science is logical to most people, people with opposing creation myths like the young Earth creationists, now attempted to be scientific.  Sadly, their pseudo science is pathetic.  Both sides will reject the myth label, and insist their story is the actual explanation of how reality works.  That puts them into direct competition for the hearts and minds of citizens of the Earth.

Trying to understand how many Americans believe young Earth creationism is hard, but here is one study, “How many Americans actually believe the earth is only 6,000 years old?”  Tony Ortega estimates this is around 31 million.

The new Cosmos will be seen in 170 countries in 45 languages, but how many people will accept it as the best possible current creation story is hard to calculate.   Neil deGrasse Tyson is the new Moses of science, and he claims the universe is 13.8 billion years old, and instead of structuring his story around 6 days, uses an analogy of the 365 day calendar to picture how 13.8 billion years would unfold.  The image is our modern world since the Renaissance would fit into the very last second of that imaginary year is just bind blowing!  One year has  31,536,000 seconds, so this creation myth is quite complex. 

The Book of Genesis, a single chapter in one book, and is merely a few thousand words.  To understand those 13.8 billion years Cosmos covers you’ll need to read hundreds of books just to get the basic ideas how how things works, and thousands of books to get a fairly accurate picture.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one scholarly book for each of those 31,536,000 representational seconds.  Maybe the faithful prefer The Bible for their explanation of reality because it’s requires reading only one book.

For most people, watching the whole series of Cosmos will only be educational in the vaguest sense.  Fundamentally, it will just be another creation story to accept or reject unless they study more science books to dig into the details.  I’ve often wondered just how many science books an average person had to read before they could claim they have a decent sense of scientific understanding.  To get some idea of the variety of science books available, read Gary’s Book Reviews at Audible.com.

Fans of the new Cosmos after finishing the series could read ten of the best popular science books on cosmology and still not understand much.  It’s a shame that K-12 schooling isn’t structured so children end up recreating the classic experiments of science.  Educating a scientific mind might be beyond reading books – it might require a series of AH HAH! moments of doing actual experiments.

Cosmos is a magnificent television show, but it’s only a beginning.  I’m sure the producers only expect it to inspire rather than teach.  It is Glenda telling Dorothy that the Yellow Brick Road exists, and viewers need to follow it to discover the real meaning of science.

The Great Books of Science

Encyclopedia Britannica has Great Books of the Western World – 60 volumes of the most influential writing in history.  This set was inspired by the 1909 idea of Harvard University and their Harvard Classics.  Which is also imagined in Harold Bloom’s Western Canon.  What we need now is The Great Books of Science series.  It doesn’t have to be an actual publication, but a constantly updated list of the best 100 books to read to understand science.  Science books get dated quickly, so the list needs to be constantly monitored and revised.  The editorial board needs to be scientists, or at least popular science writers of great experience.  Here are some attempts of coming up with such a list of science books.

As you can see, I didn’t find that many lists, so it’s a great project waiting to happen.  There’s many more lists of great science fiction books than science books, which is sad.  I love science fiction, but shouldn’t real science be more popular?

JWH – 3/13/14

Faith and The Sparrow

I watched the new HBO documentary Questioning Darwin twice yesterday.  This film precisely defines the conflict between the people who believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible and their objection to Darwin and evolution.  Even though I’m an atheist I’ve always believed that fundamentalists had a better intuitive understanding of evolution than the average church goer.  They know evolution is an alternative explanation for reality that absolutely contradicts their faith.  Most modern people are wishy-washy in their religious and scientific beliefs and try to hold both at the same time, believing they can keep God and embrace modern knowledge.  However, if you really understand evolution or you really understand faith in God, you know the two cannot coexist.  That’s what this documentary is about.

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People who understand science will see this documentary and wonder why the faithful cling so passionately to their ancient beliefs.  But the faithful who see this film will wonder at how the disciples of Darwin can’t see the obviousness of God.  The wishy-washy middle will wonder why we can’t have both.  It doesn’t work that way.  Often my friends ask me why I can’t just be an agnostic – why be an extremist. 

At one point in Questioning Darwin a preacher states it takes just as much faith to believe in science.  And he is right.  Both evolution and theology are systems to explain reality.  Backers of evolution firmly believe evolution is true.  Science is a process that evaluates evidences and selects the best explanations that describe the various workings of reality.  The science minded feel the evidence is overwhelming in support of evolution.  The fundamentalists insist God create reality and us.  The wishy-washy will say God created science and evolution.  But that’s a cop out.  Atheists and fundamentalists know there are two opposing explanations and you have to pick one. 

To the scientific minded, who dislike the word faith, I think they don’t understand the term as used by the faithful.  They think it means wish fulfillment.  They think when a religious person says they have faith in God they are saying they are choosing to “believe” God exists.  To the faithful, faith means they “know” God exists.  They have completely accepted God as the answer to explaining all the questions of reality.  By that definition of faith, atheists who back science have faith in science, and they “know” evolution is the explanation of how life arose on Earth.  But we’ll leave the word faith to the religious, and keep the word scientific for the science minded.

Folks in the middle will explain we can’t know anything for certain.  That’s true.  We can’t.  However, fundamentalists and atheists know there are currently only two choices, two theories, on the table, and they are exact opposites, and we feel it’s important to man up and pick one.  That’s what this documentary shows – the two conflicting options.

Even Darwin clung to God.  And many educated religious leaders want to understand and incorporate scientific knowledge into their metaphysical philosophy.  The vast majority of Christians are in the middle.  They aren’t Biblicists.  The Bible Christians, with their creationism and  Creation Museum insist the world is only six thousand years old, and use pseudo-sciences like intelligent design to attack real science to validate their beliefs.  It’s hard to say how many Americans believe this – one Gallop poll said 46% of Americans, but that’s probably not true.  The Raw Story analyzed that poll and concluded maybe 31 million Americans, or one tenth of the country.

Also, the numbers for people supporting evolution varies too, with atheists being the strongest at 87%, Buddhists (81%), Hindu (80%) and so on down to evangelical protestants at 23%, Mormons (22%) and Jehovah’s Witnesses at 8%.  Wikipedia using Pew Forum claims 48% of the U.S. population supports evolution.  Between the 46% Gallop figure and the 48% Pew figure, we can see how the country is polarized, and this topic matters.

The two choices are this.  The first theory is a supreme being is the starting point of everything, one of perfect knowledge, power and order, and reality descends from his being.  From perfect order towards chaos.  The second theory believes reality emerges out of nothingness, with no knowledge, no order, and no power, and is evolving toward something, becoming ever more complex and orderly.  From chaos to order.

Polarized Politics

One significant aspect of Questioning Darwin is to explain our polarize society.  If religious beliefs were merely personal it wouldn’t matter if some people believed in God and others in science, but the faithful want to change society so it follows their beliefs, and science automatically changes society through technological spinoffs.  I believe the rigidity of Republican party comes from the rigidity that believing in The Bible is the absolute word of God.  I also believe that anti-science philosophy is reflected in conservatives getting involved in the politics of education.  I used to believe that the small government movement merely reflected cheapness for not paying taxes, but more and more it appears to be because fundamentalist citizens hate spending their money on liberal ideas.

The documentary didn’t go into politics, but all the evidence was there to read.  Bible based believers want to redesign society so it matches their philosophy.  They feel both persecuted and empowered.  The documentary said that Bible based Christianity was the fastest growing religion in the world.  I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is, then expect an ever growing conflict between science and faith.

Accepting Science

My heart goes out to the faithful, to those people who embrace God.  When I watch this documentary I see all the reasons why they prefer God over science.  And I’m sure when they see this documentary their hearts will go out to all the non-believers.  But here’s the thing, the faithful believe us atheists live without many comforts they think they get from God, and I don’t think that’s true.  They cannot comprehend how we can live without God, and fear us.  They believe we embrace chaos.  We don’t.  We seek all the things belief in God gives the faithful.   We just find meaning and comfort by other paths.

We have a different approach to dealing with every sparrow that falls from a tree.  We can’t replace God and religion exactly, but we have many analogs.

Father Figure

One thing that comes through strongly in Questioning Darwin is the strong desire of religious people for a father figure.  People want a strong protector that is just and wise.  One that will always listen and always help, and most importantly, always care.  In Darwin’s reality, we all have to become our own father figures.  We want to grow up and leave home and stand on our own.  The faithful love the quote, “there are no atheists in foxholes.”  They believe when times are tough everyone will beg for God’s help.  That isn’t true.  True atheists understand and accept the randomness of the universe.  If there’s a shell with our name on it, then our time is up.  It’s not personal.  We don’t want to die, but death comes to us all, and usually it’s an apparently random fate.  Science and knowledge gives us understanding to how things happens.  It’s not completely random.  Sometimes its from the will or fault of another person, and we do find that evil and unjust.  We don’t expect a father figure to rescue us, and especially not one that will avenge us.

Darwin explains how we got here, but he said nothing about what it means to be a self-aware being finding itself in an unconscious reality.  Humans with scientific knowledge will be able to conquer the random chaotic indifferent universe.  There is no God that senses every sparrow that falls from a tree, but humans are now aware of sparrows and maybe it’s our responsibility to take care of all of them.

Order and Morality

Related to the father figure wish, is the desire for justice.  The faithful hate the idea that the universe is random and capricious.  The faithful want God to be the arbiter of right and wrong, and the punisher of evil doers.  The want the universe to have a referee who knows the rules that everyone must follow.  The faithful hate not having clear rules to live by.

The scientific have laws and ethics.  We do not believe the universe has morality built into it, but we do believe that intelligent beings can create their own morality.  We call that ethics.  We also believe that intelligent beings can invent their own rules to live by.  We can them laws.

We have also created the idea of human rights, and more recently, animal rights.  Even though we are Godless, we embrace ethics and morality completely.  Right and wrong is just as important to our philosophy as it is to literal Bible believers.

Yes, the universe is chaotic, seemingly ruled by random events, we see the emergence of order in everything.  If someone dies horribly from cancer we don’t see it as punishment.  We don’t blame God, or wonder if the person deserved to die a miserable death.  We study the environmental and genetic causes of cancer to understand how it happened.  Even though randomness is a major factor in everything that happens, we still find cause and effect.  It’s not a meaningless universe to us.  If a sparrow falls from a tree, we study why.

Immortality

Believers in God have one overwhelming wish they expect God to grant – everlasting life.  Science accepts death comes to us all but we work to extend life as much as possible.  Personally, living forever scares me.  It sounds like a cruel torture.  But us unbelievers do want a longer life, and we expect science to study reality and discover how to make people live longer.

Not only do we want longer lives, we want to make sure our species does not become extinct, and we want to protect all other species.

Heaven

As a nonbeliever who occasionally studies The Bible. it seems to me that two most important books are the first, Genesis, and the last, Revelation.  To believers, the first explains how we got here and the last explains where we’re going.  The Book of Revelation has the most extensive description of heaven in all of The Bible.  And if it’s the literal truth, I don’t think I want to go to heaven, especially not for all of eternity.

Those of us believe in science want to build paradise on Earth.  We want to conquer disease, live a long time, create a humane and just world, with lots of creative activities to pursue.  We want to live long enough, and then die peacefully.  We accept death, but don’t embrace it.  Not only do we want to create heaven on Earth for humans, but we want to recreate Eden for the animals.

Prayer

From watching the documentary I got the feeling that prayer was among the most cherish aspects of religion.  That being able to talk to God is the number one need.  I think we all feel lonely in this old reality.  When I saw the scenes of the happy people at the mega-church I envied them their community togetherness.  Praying together is a way of sharing hopes and fighting fears.

We unbelievers have a substitute for prayer.  Instead of asking God to change reality for us, we believe we should change reality ourselves.  We don’t plead to God to heal the sick, but spend money on medical research.  We vote for Obamacare.  We don’t pray to God to stop evil wrong doers, we pay for police and the judicial systems.  We don’t pray for world peace but build armies.  We don’t pray for rain, but build irrigation systems.  We don’t beg God to send us a husband or wife, but join Match.com.  We don’t ask for riches, but go to college or invent Candy Crush.

Also, I am constantly thankful.  I am grateful for being alive, for having a lucky life, for family and friends.  I spend a lot of time studying nature and science to appreciate the wonders of reality.  I constantly think good thoughts about other people, animals and all life on Earth, and even out into the universe.  That kind of positive thinking is our prayers.

Sin

Religious people are frightened and horrified by all the evil things that happen on Earth.  We nonbelievers are just as scared and repulsed by those events too.  In the documentary it shows a wing at the Creation Museum that depicts these horrors.  Many of the pastors and their followers interviewed talked about sin, and the origin of sin.  All pointed to the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.  Some of the people interviewed even believed that dinosaurs existed in the Garden of Eden and that Adam and Eve and all the animals were vegetarians before sin came to us.  Believing there was no violence or suffering before sin.

The scientific minded don’t like violence either.  I’m a vegetarian.  I don’t want animals or people to suffer.  I’m a liberal and want the government to help needy people so they won’t suffer.  I give money to causes to end suffering.

Science, law, technology and ethics are all efforts to create order, to end suffering and to create justice.  We want to educate people so they won’t do evil.  So they won’t hurt other people, or protect the weak.

In a way I agree with the fundamentalists, and believe that it is humans that brought sin into this world.  I actually think the metaphor for the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is a beautiful concept.  I think the writers of The Book of Genesis knew there was a time when we were like animals, and were innocent of good and bad, and that language and understanding let us know the difference between what should be and shouldn’t.  Those writers wished we still lived in the Garden of Eden, innocent and without sin.  Boy, they would have loved Jean-Jacques Rousseau.   Us disciples of Darwin see it differently.  Yes, there is sin in the world, but through knowledge we’ll learn to live ethical and good lives.  Violence is the rule of reality from The Big Bang to The Enlightenment.  It’s only been in the last few centuries have we learned that violence is wrong, and that human rights and animals rights is the way to end it.  We don’t believe Eden existed – yet.

Humans are an emergent phenomenon, sort of like the singularity we imagine for intelligent machines.  Humans woke up and saw reality and have been trying to figure it out ever since.  We reached a critical mass of brain cells that allowed us to be self-aware – aware of who we are and the reality we lived in.  We didn’t fall from grace, but emerged from the chaos of nature.  We became a new type of entity in reality – one that recognized it’s place in reality.  Reality is pretty scary.  Our job isn’t to die and go to heaven, but to conquer reality.

We left Eden not because we were exiled, but because we could no longer be unaware animals.  We wear clothes not because of shame, but because we don’t want to be animals.  We left Eden because we wanted freedom to become everything we can imagine.  Sure, we’ve fucked up the planet, but we’re still evolving.  Hopefully, we can make things right and get our shit together before we destroy everything.

Nature is not sinful, it’s just red tooth and claw.  Only humans can be sinful and evil.  We do that when we act like animals and destroy rather than create.  We achieve grace and transcend nature when we live up to our full potential and become good by our own definition of goodness.  The ten commandments were not from God, but our own creation to bring goodness into the world.

Sin defined by God is servitude and slavery.  Sin defined by humanity is escaping from nature.

The desire to return to Garden of Eden innocence is the desire to go back to sleep, to become unconscious to the nature of reality.

To the faithful, sin is not obeying God, but to the scientific, sin is not living up to our knowledge.

The evil of the red tooth and claw of nature is the hatred of chaos.  Science seeks to understand reality so that we might bring order to chaos.  Most of the evils of mankind are from when we act like animals, which reflects the programming of nature.  Currently the Earth suffers because humanity collectively acts like a cancerous growth on the planet, killing endless species and destroying the ecosystem.  It comes from being unconscious to the knowledge science has shown us.  The most evil of sin is being aware and doing evil.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

The most disturbing of all the points they illustrate in the documentary is when they show a young girl in the hospital paralyzed from the neck down because she was in a car accident.  Her cousin said his wife prayed and prayed but wondered why it didn’t help.  The cousin wondered why an all powerful and all knowing God could let this happen.  They speculated that God had a purpose and claimed they had faith in whatever that purpose might be.

Here’s where I find atheism far more comforting than religion.  We can all be victims of random evil.  Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, nor did we do anything to deserve punishment.  And when someone is at fault, it’s explainable, like a drunk driver, or mad gunman.   Isn’t it better to have something bad happen to you and not think God has it in for you?  Especially if you love God so much?

Being Saved

Towards the end of the documentary they interview at ex-prostitute crack user and a former heroin addict who both claim God saved them.  Religion has saved a lot of people.  Religion can bring order and stability to people.  But millions of nonbelievers have saved themselves too.  As an atheist when I meet people like these two saved people I don’t want to argue with them, or try to take away their faith.  They were lost and now they are found.  I can accept that.  But God isn’t my explanation for why they are better.

Both of these people were addicted to drugs.  Now they are addicted to a belief in God.  They switched from a negative addiction to a positive addiction.  They found a community of people to belong, and they’ve turned their life around.

Personally, I think they got a virus that changed them.  Memes are viruses of the mind.  God and religion are powerful generators of memes.  Memes replicate and spread like mental viruses.  They are like DNA in that they replicate.  Religious memes are very successful because they make people feel good.  Really good.  As good as crack or heroin.

My parents were alcoholics.  My father died of drinking when I was 18.  My mother eventually gave it up.  She was religious, but I think she gave up drinking and smoking from her own willpower.  I did a lot of drugs when I was young, but I gave them up.  I saved myself.  But I think some people need other people to save themselves.  They think it’s God, but it’s really a community of caring people.

Churches

If they had churches for atheists I think we’d have a lot more atheists.  I think a lot of people believe in God because they like going to church and being part of a community.  I’m pretty sure millions of people profess the doctrine of their church because that’s what they are told, and it’s easy to accept rather than study science books.  But what they really want is friends and community.  That professing belief in Jesus is just learning the secret password to join the club.

True believers of Darwin have their club houses too, they are called universities and research institutes.  But the average citizen who backs science usually don’t have scientific clubs to join.  Amateur astronomy is big on clubs, but we usually don’t see hangouts for physic and chemistry fans.  Birders and some other naturalists do have a lot of amateur associations.

I wonder if there would be more professed atheists in America if we had churches devoted to believers in science.  Imagine going to service on Sunday to hear lectures on cosmology and mathematics, mixed with singing and study groups for evolution and quantum mechanics.  With Sunday night dinners and Wednesday night social gatherings with kid’s activities, such as robot building contests.

Charles Darwin and Evolution

The thing believers hated most about Darwin and evolution is takes away the concept that humans are special, that we are special in God’s eyes.  Many of the preachers talked about humans being created in the image of God, and that we weren’t animals, as if being an animal was undignified, or lowly.  I thought it was strange that they’d prefer to be a servant of God to being the top dog of the animal world.  I find a kind of affinity with the line from Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.”

Until we meet an intelligent alien from the stars, we are the kings of the universe.  We are now responsible for what happens on this world.  We can choose to be great, or act like animals.  We can create our own immortality, our own paradise, or own morality, our own health and happiness.  We are the father and mother to what will be.  This might be hubris, but only if imaginary gods are real, and there’s never been a shred of evidence to believe they are, only wishes.

JWH – 2/12/14

How To Become an Atheist?

Many of my atheist friends like to argue with religious people.  I don’t.  As long as people don’t try to make their religious beliefs into laws, and turn this country into a theocracy, I don’t care what they believe.  However, I find it very intriguing how some atheists believe they can enlighten the faithful with science, as if new and better explanations of reality will supplant myth driven memes.  I’m not sure it works that way.  Think of a meme as virus of thoughts and knowledge.  Concepts – memes – have a powerful life of their own.  They infect our brains in ways beyond logical understanding.

horse-1520

My theory is you have to go further into religion to find your way out.  Religious beliefs are deep-seated memes acquired in our formative years.  These memes are ancient and deeply routed in our culture.  It requires some serious soul searching to deprogram oneself.  I suppose some people might argue with an atheist or read Richard Dawkins and abruptly change their mind, but I’m not sure it’s a significant number.  Personally, I think most people are indifferent or only mildly accepting of religious beliefs.  They aren’t philosophical, and life after death isn’t that important to them one way or another.  It’s the true believer we’re really talking about. But true believers are hard wired to accept what they are taught as a child and won’t give up their ingrained beliefs easily.  Religion promises two things that science can’t, purpose and immortality.  True believers would rather have a purpose driven life with the promise of heaven, than the truth and death.

Converting true believers to evidence based thinking is probably a near impossible task.  I’m not actually interested in working at it, but as a philosophical problem of how to reprogram the mind, it’s a fascinating puzzle.  My hypothesis for my atheist friends is to suggest a different approach.  Instead of teaching science, teach religion.  Here’s what I would suggest that might work better.  Advise your God obsessed friends to:

Read the Bible

As a teen one of the most powerful deprogramming tools I discovered for myself was reading The Bible.  Start at the beginning and read it like a book.  Later in life I started listening to audiobook editions, and they are very powerful tools for revealing the book’s secrets.  The Bible is a very weird book.  It’s obvious written by many people, and for many reasons.  While reading it, constantly ask:  Who wrote this part?  Who did they write it for?  Why?  What did they hope to achieve?  Don’t just whiz past all the words and stories.  Think about their purpose.  Remember they were written 2,000-3,000 years ago, and they were first told as oral stories, not written, to people who were not literate, who had no concept of science, philosophy, history, medicine, mathematics, etc.  The Old Testament is fascinating because it’s obviously more of a book about social management than a textbook for spiritual education.  It’s about a history of people becoming a nation, about rulers inspiring a sense of history and social cohesion, and a means to justify the ownership of a piece of land.

The New Testament is totally different.  It’s a history of how Christianity started, but told from side of the winners.  Christianity had a myriad of forms in the first century.  Just reading The New Testament without historical supplements, it’s easy to spot that Paul is imposing his will on how people will conceive of Christianity.  Through his attacks on other proto-Christians we see there was many differences of opinions.

Study the Bible as History

Start with studying how The Bible has been translated into English many times over the last four hundred years.  That’s very fascinating.  Then study different approaches to modern translations – literal versus lyrical approaches.  Bart Ehrman was a fundamentalist believer until he went to divinity school to study The Bible in its original languages.  Ehrman is not an atheist, but his scholarly studies of how The Bible was put together has changed his beliefs.  I highly recommend reading his books.  Ehrman is also a specialists on early Christian sects and the battle for orthodoxy.  Be sure and study Gnosticism.  Elaine Pagels is a good writer for this.

Study the Gospels in a horizontal fashion.  They often retell stories about the same events but with different facts.  Learn how to put the various stories in chronological order to see when various belief memes arose.  Many cherished Christian beliefs were added long after Jesus died, and deal with concepts he never spoke about.  Read The Five Gospels created at The Jesus Seminar.

There are literally millions of books on religion, try to find the ones that use a scholarly historical approach, rather than speculation and interpretation books.

After studying The Bible itself, start studying history and anthropology of Biblical times.  Learn to overlay stories in The Bible with real history.  Study the cultures that existed concurrent to Israel and see how they saw events The Bible.

Study Other Religions

Going ecumenical is a great way to undermine your own parochial beliefs.  Start attending a variety of Christian churches and compare their specific doctrines.  Attend and study Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim religious services and holy books.  Start reading about everyone’s saviors and saints.  Study the origins of religions before monotheism.  Gods and religions existed for thousands and thousands of years before anything in The Bible was even thought about.   Karen Armstrong is a writer I like that explores the origins of religion.  Study Joseph Campbell, for myths and mythology.  I learned Buddhism from Alan Watts and Hinduism from Ram Dass, but I’m sure there are more comprehensive scholars have emerged since way back then.

Conclusion

I’m not sure how much is involved with getting people to change their minds about cherish beliefs and desires.  I’m a lifelong science fiction fan, who believes in many science fiction memes that I acquired early in childhood and have clung to my entire life.  Science undermines my beliefs too, and I hate to give them up.

However, it’s my theory that more knowledge about our cherished beliefs will change them faster than learning about other ways of thinking, or just being told they are wrong.  Over the decades I’ve actually studied faster-than-light travel, robotics, interplanetary travel, interstellar travel, colonizing the Moon and Mars, and many other science fictional memes, and it has been learning the limits of these concepts that has changed my mind.  Sure, it meant learning more science, but it took time for me to live with my cherished beliefs to understand how they wouldn’t work.

JWH – 1/22/14

A Nonbeliever in Church

The only time I go to church anymore is for weddings and funerals.  Sadly, I had to attend a funeral today, and sat through a Catholic mass.  The church was beautiful, and very restful to sit in.  I liked the music, especially the pipe organ, and a song they sang that sounded like “Danny Boy.”  But being an atheist, it was very uncomfortable to listen to the words they preached.

The priest gave a loving sermon, except that the message sounded crazy to me.  The resurrection and  everlasting life was mentioned over and over again, almost hammered into the audience, until I felt that Christianity is a cult based on the fear of death.  I can understanding people fearing oblivion, I can understand people wanting to see their loved ones again, I just can’t believe in an afterlife.

death_of_a_cyborg

[Source Shorra]

Atheism has taught me to accept death, and the fact that my life on Earth is finite.  I find it very scary that everyone around me believes they won’t die and will leave Earth for someplace else when their natural body ceases to function.  Now I don’t want to argue with these people.  I’m not sure I want to take away this deep rooted fantasy, but it depresses me that so many people choose to reject this Earthly reality.

Christianity preaches two main tenets:  Jesus will forgive you of your sins and give you everlasting life.  That’s quite a sales pitch.  Quite a promise.  Atheism is just the opposite.  Atheism says you must own up to your sins and you will die.  No wonder it’s not a popular philosophy.

I’m not trying to sell atheism, you must find your way into disbelieving on your own.  But I will answer some questions that my faithful friends always ask me.

First, I don’t believe atheism leads to immorality.  To live without religion requires embracing ethics.  I believe all people commit unethical acts – sins if you will.  I don’t think our sins should be forgiven.  I think we should all work to overcome our sins in this lifetime, to become ethical.  That we must learn to be better people through education and understanding, through scientific knowledge.

Second, this life is all we get.  If something bad happens to us, its not due to powerful supernatural beings, either God or Satan.  Bad things happen to good people because of accident, or the acts of bad people.  This reality is full of random events beyond our control.  It’s nobody’s fault, except for when people hurt each other.  If you are killed by a drunk driver it’s not an act of God, but of a drunk driver.  If you are killed by a crazy person going on a shooting spree, it’s because of a crazy person and not Satan.  It is our responsibility to create a world where there are no drunk drivers or crazy people with guns.  Most of what happens to us in life is beyond our control.  Badness which we can control but don’t, is sin.  Swearing allegiance to a supernatural being is no free get-out-of-jail card.

Global warming is an example.  It’s a tremendous sin.  We need to own up to it.  We need absolve this sin through our own good actions.  It’s a debt humanity has incurred.  It’s a debt we all should pay.  Saying you believe in Jesus to get everlasting life is wrong on two accounts.  First, it’s skipping town to avoid your debt.  Second, it’s delusional.

While sitting through the funeral service today I tried to imagine what an atheist funeral would be like.  We would grieve for the departed, but we wouldn’t pretend their existence continued.  We’d celebrate their life, and promise never to forget them, but I think we’d all sit quietly toting up their sins and judge our passed kin or friend on whether or not they forgave themselves.

But the best thing we could do is accept people for who they were.  To me, the sin of religion is it whitewashes reality.

JWH – 10/25/13

Is Religion Holding Back Space Travel?

If every person on Earth woke up tomorrow an atheist would there be a surge of interest in space travel?  Does the promise of an afterlife keep us from noticing that we’re living on a very small rock in a very big universe?

Most people living today expect to leave this world for another when they die.  Without heaven, would we travel to the stars instead?

If we were all atheists and expert cosmologists, would we think, “Why are we just sitting on this on speck of dust when there’s endless worlds to explore?”

Because most people are self-centered, addicted to creature comforts, and afraid of death, would freedom from religion make them brave explorers?  And if not willing to go themselves, would a godless existential reality inspire them to pay tithes/taxes so other humans could leave Earth in rocketships?

space-travel

If there was no God to define who we are, how would we define ourselves?  In other words, if we weren’t burdened by religious beliefs and truly free to shape our own destinies, would many of us seek to leave Earth in spaceships and colonize the galaxy?

If we were all absolutely sure of our mortality would we huddle close to home, hoping for life extension from science?  Or would we bravely fling ourselves beyond the sky and its protective shielding to see if we could adapt to the bizarre habitats of space?

If we knew we lived in a godless universe, and we were the crown of creation, would we work harder to preserve the Earth and colonize other worlds so all our genetic eggs wouldn’t be in one basket?  Or without God, would humanity just become depressed and wallow in self pity?

If we find ourselves in a meaningless universe can we make our own meaning?

Is it true, when the going gets tough, that the tough get going?

JWH – 3/13/13

How Religious Concepts Are Spread Like Computer Viruses

This is a book review of Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels, but I’m going to go about it in a very round about way.

How the Concept of Heaven Came to Be

Once up a time there was a man named Jesus.  He was an ordinary human.  He was not divine.  He was not God.  We know next to nothing about Jesus and can’t even prove he existed.  We are fairly sure he did exist and that he said some interesting things about compassion and love, but even that is speculation.  We know if he existed that he died.  Everyone dies.

After he died his friends began to remember him through oral story telling.  He must have made a great impression on them.  At first they told stories about what he preached.  Those stories were told to other people.  The stories spread and grew.  Story tellers began to embellish on those stories and Jesus became something new.

The storytellers developed a whole life around Jesus, telling more than than just messages.  He was deified.  He was giving magical powers.  And the stories grew and grew.  Decades after his death people began collecting those stories and writing them down.  Some of those stories were attributed to men who had known Jesus personally, but it’s doubtful those men actual wrote the gospels.  Then a man named Saul had a vision from Jesus, and he began preaching about Jesus and spread stories about Jesus far and wide, especially to people who were not Jews, to the pagans.  Saul became Paul and invented Christianity.  The myths of Jesus caught fire in the minds of men living around the Mediterranean in the first century.

We know dead people can’t talk to the living.  We know the dead don’t return to Earth.  We know the people in the first century were very ignorant, illiterate and superstitious.  We know the followers of Jesus were marginalized people.  We know the followers of Jesus were persecuted.   We know the poor people of the first century lived extremely hard lives.  They wanted escape from cruelty, poverty and death.  They believed the stories of Jesus.  They believed because they had nothing else.

As the stories about Jesus spread, what was promised to the believers of Jesus?  Jesus could conquer disease and death.  Jesus promised eternal life.  Jesus was God, and he could give you anything you wanted if only you believed.  Ideas about Jesus became very powerful ideas.  Ideas about Jesus eventually overthrew the Roman Empire.  Ideas about Jesus have survived for two thousand years and spread to billions of people.

We know life after death is not real.  We know God does not exist.  We know people aren’t born from virgin birth.  We know magic does not exist.  So how did these ideas survive and spread?  How is belief in fantasies so much more powerful than reality?

Words and ideas do have power.  Ideas and concepts do spread.  Belief and fantasy is far more powerful than facts and reality.

The logic against God is overwhelming, but the power of belief is even more powerful than logic.  Why?

Jesus no longer exists.  Ideas about Jesus do exist and are so powerful as to almost be indestructible.   Ideas about Jesus aren’t immortal, but as long as believers exist they will thrive and spread.  How are ideas able to become this powerful and spread so thoroughly?

Heaven

There was a time when  the concept of heaven didn’t exist.  The idea of an afterlife is so old that it’s impossible to trace.  We think Neanderthals believed in an afterlife.  We know the Egyptians believed in an afterlife.  The ancient Jewish people didn’t.  One Jewish friend told me once that if modern Jews think of heaven or life after death it’s because they’ve been corrupted by Christianity.  I’m not sure Jesus promised an afterlife, but sometime after he died, his followers started using the promise of eternal life as a selling point for Christianity.

Where did the idea of heaven come from?  Well, one specific place is the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.  It describes Heaven quite specifically that is completely different from most people’s concept of heaven today.  How did the heaven in the Book of Revelation get to be the heaven we know today?  And which heaven.  It seems every person that’s heard of the concept imagines it differently.

The Tree of Ideas – Forking Branches

Here’s a chart I’ve borrowed from the Internet to show how ideas branch, and how new ideas even merge with other ideas.  If I were to give a chart that tracked this history of the concept of heaven it would have billions of nodes.

idea-tree

In the computer world when programmers argue over a programming project, they’ll split into two groups and each take the source code and develop new versions separately, in the manner each want. That’s called forking. Judaism and Christianity are a fork. Judaism and Islam are a fork. Christianity and Mormonism are a fork. Every different Protestant sect is a fork. Every personal view of The Bible is a fork. Some people want to believe in the literal truth of The Bible and cut out all the middle forks of religion, but every personal interpretation is a fork.

But smaller ideas fork too.  Religions are composed of many, many concepts, even thousands, so it’s very hard to pinpoint any whole subject exactly because it’s components are always forking and mutating.

If God exists and is all powerful he could just appear in the sky, on every TV, on every cell phone, on every computer screen, on every Game Boy, once a year and tell us all who is is and what he wants from us. The Book of Revelation is like many of the books of The Bible where the writer is extorting its readers to all act the same way and it uses the fear of God as the stick and the promise of heaven as the carrot.

Go read The Book of RevelationUse this link which has a modern easy to understand translation. The Book of Revelation has the most descriptive accounts of heaven and hell in all of The Bible. Read it carefully. The Book of Revelation’s description of heaven sounds no different from hell to me. Here is the description of heaven:

10 And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

11 It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

12 It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.

13 There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west.

14 The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

15 The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls.

16 The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long.

17 He measured its wall and it was 144 cubits thick, by man’s measurement, which the angel was using.

18 The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass.

19 The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third chalcedony, the fourth emerald,

20 the fifth sardonyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst.

21 The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of pure gold, like transparent glass.

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.

23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.

24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.

25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.

26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.

27 Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Chapter 22

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb

2 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

3 No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.

4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

5 There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

From this description most concepts of heaven have forked. Heaven is a meme that entered the collective consciousness almost two thousand  years ago and has infected our minds like a virus ever since. It has forked so many times that it’s impossible to reassemble all the mutant paths. Nonetheless, heaven is just an idea, that’s all. It’s an idea people want to be real, but it’s not.

Is this your image of heaven, a building that one translation of measurements of the time would make it slightly smaller than Australia, with no sun or moon or sky, lit only by the light of God.  Some people rationalize The Book of Revelation by claiming it’s symbolic, but then why isn’t the rest of The Bible symbolic?

Does Christianity merely promise an afterlife of living in the biggest mall on Earth where you spend all your time admiring God?  No, Christians loved the idea of immortality and life in heaven, but they’ve constantly reshaped each.

Heaven is an idea that has infected the world and constantly mutates.  It’s an ancient meme.  It’s a mental virus.

Generally,  ideas, once introduced are hard to reclaim, like the contents of Pandora’s Box.  But, in the early days of Christianity there was a war of ideas and many were erased from the minds of men.  Or almost.  See The Book of Revelation wasn’t the only book of revelation going around when they assembled the Bible.  All the others were repressed and destroyed so the one we have today is the officially divine version.  So why did early Christians insist on John of Patmos’ vision?

Book of Revelation

One of the most powerful pieces of writing that has ever existed is The Book of RevelationThe Book of Revelation has inspired religions, believers and artists for eighteen centuries.  If we could trace all the ideas it contained, forked, mutated, inspired and generated, the list would be staggering.  The Book of Revelation has generated more false beliefs than any book in history, except maybe The Book of Genesis.  However, stories about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge and Noah don’t really match up to the power of the second coming, the final judgment, and life in heaven and hell.  Just look at the Left Behind movement, which came from The Book of Revelation, and deeply affects politics and society today.

Again, I recommend reading The Book of Revelation in the New International Version here.  It’s a fairly quick read, and for all its legendary reputation for having confusing symbolism, it’s quite straight forward and explicit once you know few historical clues.  666 is a numerical coding for Emperor Nero probably, and the whore of Babylon is Rome.  Basically The Book of Revelation is a declaration of war on the Roman Empire.  The Jews are God’s chosen people, the Gentiles and Pagans are evil and unworthy.  Like most of the other books of The Bible, it nags the good to follow God’s laws and warns the bad of his wrath.  However, this time, John is given a preview of what’s to come.  Basically God and Jesus will rescue the chosen, the elect, the 144,000 people’s whose names are in God’s book, and the followers of Christ, and then kill everyone else.

Elaine Pagels, a scholar specializing in the Gnostic Gospels and Apocrypha books of The Bible just came out with Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation.  Her book is a short overview of The Book of Revelation, what it’s about, why it was probably written, how it’s significance grew until it was included as the final book of The Bible, and finally how it beat out many other books of revelations to become the book of revelation in the Christian belief system.

My friends often wonder why I read books about religious history.  They figure since I’m an atheist I would have no interest in religion.  But I am fascinated by history, information theory, science, philosophy and how ideas are created and spread.  How religious concepts go viral is just as fascinating as how computer viruses are created and spread.  Since humans are not computers, many people dislike this analogy, but you might be surprised that ideas are like viruses, infecting their hosts and spreading through social contact.  The theory isn’t new.  It’s slowly spreading itself.  The science of infectious ideas is called memetics, and the idea that memes are “Viruses of the Mind” was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1991.  A newer book by Richard Brodie called Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme takes this concept further.

While Dawkins and most atheists study how religious ideas are spread in our contemporary world, I find it worthwhile to go back to the beginning of Christianity and see how its most powerful memes got started in the first place.  An excellent of example of this kind of study is Pagels’ book Revelations.  Another book that covers the same territory Forged by Bart D. Ehrman, that also came out in 2012.

Revelations-Elaine-Pagels

Let me be very clear in my position – anyone believing that The Book of Revelation is about anything other than 1st century politics is spinning out new memes.  There is no such thing as divine revelations or prophecy.  We know this is true for two reasons, science, and the fact that all people we’ve examined in modern times that proclaimed revelations or prophecy have proven to be insane.   But for some reason modern people think that ancient people really did receive revelations from God and angels and were given the power to foretell the future.  Those are just two of the memes that grew out of The Old Testament and even older religions.  We have no way to track down the originals of those meme, revelation and prophecy.  They are very ancient concepts that have spread all over the world to all religions.  They probably originated separately in various parts of the world.

The Book of Revelation by John of Patmos does create many original memes we can track through the centuries.  One of the most fascinating aspect of Elaine Pagels’ book, and of Forged by Bart Ehrman, is how early Christians used their religious beliefs for political purposes.  Their rhetoric, tactics, motives and argumentative styles are almost identical to contemporary Christian fundamentalist thinkers and the political pundits we see today on Fox News.

The Book of Revelation has a lot of mysteries that I am not interested in.  Many people want to believe that the John who wrote The Book of Revelation was also the John who wrote the Gospel of John, and many of those people want to believe that John was also the John the Apostle.  Most scholars consider them three separate men.  But authorship is an issue that I am interested in for a different reason.

When Jesus lived, and even that’s open for debate, he had a few followers.  How did Christianity go from a few believers to billion of believers?  How did the early Christians spread their ideas, especially after Rome started a program to exterminate them.  How did they keep spreading their ideas until Christians were the rulers of the Roman world?  How did Christians codify their beliefs into a book that spread their beliefs across the whole world?  Strangely. the story is far more political than spiritual.

How did Christian ideas spread like a virus infecting untold billions of people through the centuries, even after better, and more rational ideas developed?  I believe they used certain techniques that made their memes more powerful.  They include:

  • God told us (revelation)
  • Jesus taught us
  • Jesus died and was reborn (it’s funny how people just accept this idea of proof of Christianity)
  • the disciples taught us (Gospels)
  • Jesus reveal to us after he died (Paul, John of Patmos, etc.)
  • we will live after we die (heaven didn’t exist as a reward until after Jesus died, but it was a huge selling point)
  • the scriptures taught us
  • allegories and coded works
  • forgeries, fakes and forked ideas

One way to validate your idea is to not claim those ideas are yours, but God gave them to you.  Very few people get away with being a Prophet with a message from God.  The next best thing is to claim your idea was given to you by a Prophet personally, these are the disciples that knew Jesus.  But if you weren’t part of the original twelve how do you validate your ideas?  Paul claims to have met Christ on the road to Damascus in a vision.  That’s pretty convenient, and he got away with it, even though he taught a message of Christianity that was distinctively different from Peter and James and the other apostles.  In today’s world there are countless people who hear from God and Jesus but we don’t take them serious.

As Bart Ehrman points out in Forged, that back in the early days of Christianity there were a lot of people with ideas, mainly political, that wanted their ideas accepted, so they wrote using another name.  Ehrman shows how many Christian scholars believe several of the books in the New Testament are forgeries of this kind.  Mostly people after Paul’s time using Paul’s name to get some things done.  What John of Patmos does is claim he got his revelations from a vision of Christ.  He was attacking Rome in an allegoric and coded document.  He had to hide his true meaning because the Romans would have killed him.  For centuries other people have used The Book of Revelation as the basis of their authority to attack social and political conditions in their own day.  The entire second coming, left behind meme comes from The Book of Revelation, even though it was intended the first century and not the current.  Coding your ideas in allegoric visions usually doesn’t work, but thousands of writers have cribbed from this story.

This kind of claiming authority worked for the first few hundred years until it became very hard to believe anyone knew the original guys, or that any of their writings were still left undiscovered.  Today we always doubt people who claim they got a message from God, except that it’s been pulled off rather well twice since Christianity began,  by Islam and The Church of Later Day Saints.

Today we get people who claim they know what God thinks and they try to speak for him.  Here’s a horrific example that came out after the Sandy Hook killings.  Watch this video till the end, so see how their logic is refuted.

The logic used by the people to promote prayer in school is the same logic that was used for form Christianity and take over the Roman Empire.  There were writers in those early centuries that attacked Christianity for its illogical premises, but those works have been mostly destroyed.  For a religion claiming be based on the lamb, the early Christians were as aggressive as lions.  Pagels told of a bishop who foiled the power of his enemy, a powerful intellectual monk, by writing the monk’s biography and having him believe everything the bishop did.

Reading about early Christianity is the study of political power of memes.  Christianity spread spiritual memes like belief in heaven and hell, but it mainly spread political ideas that developed the Catholic Church.  Pagels chronicles the early Christians who believed very differently from modern Christians.   The Catholic Church, which became the orthodoxy, had many opponents which the orthodoxy labeled heretical.  These opponents had different ideas as to what Jesus taught.  We can never know what Jesus really taught because the orthodoxy wiped out the heretics and all their writings.   Well, victors always get to write history, except in the 20th century we discovered a couple caches of documents hidden by the heretics 1800 years ago.  Elaine Pagels has made a life-long career of studying these documents and they give us vague tantalizing clues to the early Christian years and how various memes were created.

If religion is a virus of the mind, what is the anti-virus?  Obviously logic and science are not the answer.  They do work against religion, but their effective rate of cure is very slow.  Scientists are learning that humans are not logical and rational, but are powerful rationalizing creatures.  Most people’s desire to believe in an afterlife is so powerful they will do anything to maintain that belief.  This is particularly perplexing because the details of what immortality will be like are extremely vague.  Other than not dying, the most common benefit of the afterlife is getting to meet dead family and friends.  Most people expect a pleasant existence in the afterlife but have no specifics of what that will involve.  The Book of Revelation does provide a lot of details, but I can’t believe people actual find them appealing.

We live in a reality obscured by ideas.  John the Apostle and John of Patmos did know the power of “The Word.”  Like Plato they believed their ideal concepts were reality.  They thought their concepts were purer than reality.  Their visions became memes that have infected the minds of men ever since.  Will we ever be cured of these fantasies?

We live in a world were the majority of people live lives based on delusions.  They fiercely campaign for political changes based on their delusions.  They demand that all people follow their delusions.  They demand that all morality be based on their delusions.  And many of them are willing to kill to get what they want.  All for a virus of the mind.

JWH – 1/13/13

Life of Pi–Is God the Better Story?

Director Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee have done an excellent job of adapting Yann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi to film.  When I read the book back in 2004 I thought at the time it would never be made into a film because the novel was too cerebral, too narrative heavy, plus, how could anyone get a tiger to do all that acting?

bengal-tiger

Life of Pi the film covered a surprising amount of the content of Life of Pi the book.  So far I can think of just three scenes I missed.  First, story of Pi’s family running into Pi’s three religious leaders.  Second, showing how Pi used turtles to survive, and finally, the scene where Pi is blind and hears people in another life raft.

Still, Lee and Magee beautifully succeeded with capturing the philosophical heart of the novel.  If you loved the book, go see the film, you’ll be surprised by how well it was filmed.

Is God the Better Story?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, don’t read beyond this point if you plan do either, because I’m going to analyze the philosophical statement of the book and it will spoil the story.

In the main story, a boy from India, Piscine Molitor Patel,  who wants to be called Pi, is shipwreck in a lifeboat with a zebra, orangutan, hyena and a tiger named Richard Parker.  Martel tells us this story very realistically and we are expected to believe it happened. But along the way, Martel takes us through scenes that are very hard to believe, like the carnivorous island with the meerkats.

Yann Martel has crafted a Zen kōan into a novel.  Most kōans are short, “What is the sound of one hand clapping.”   Yann Martel essentially asks, “Is God the better story?”

At the beginning of the novel and movie, in a pseudo introduction, the author is told by an older Pi, that he can tell the author a story that will make him believe in God.  Yann Martel creates two stories, one very long, elaborate, fantastic, awe inspiring – and brutal, and a second that is short and brutal.  We are asked which one we prefer.  Martel is right, everyone, including realists like me, will pick the story with Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger.

So where does God come in?  How can this story make us believe in God?  Analyzing fiction for symbolism is tricky, but for me, Richard Parker represents God though analogy.  At the end of the film and novel, when Pi has told his long fabulist story to two Japanese insurance investigators they refuse to believe him.  So Pi tells a shorter, ugly version that we know is true, but hate to believe.  Then Pi asks the investigators which story they prefer.

We all want to believe in the story where Richard Parker existed because it’s a better story than the one of madness, murder and cannibalism.

So what about the prediction at the beginning, that the story will make us believe in God?  I believe Yann Martel uses the desire to believe in Richard Parker as a stand in for God, creating an analogy, that the readers and audience must make on their own.  Pi desperately wants to believe in God.  Pi asks us to believe in Richard Parker because the story of surviving in a lifeboat with a tiger is a better story than going mad and surviving alone.

The whole point of the novel is to trick the reader into the question:  Which story do you prefer.  Of course everyone prefers Richard Parker to be real.  By transference, we’re ask to accept that belief in God is the better story, just like how we want to believe that Richard Parker existed.  We’re never explicitly told that wanting to believe in Richard Parker is the same as wanting to believe in God, but I feel it’s obvious.

Yann Martel tells us people prefer religion over reality because the story of God is a better story than reality.  And I ask:  “Is this why people refuse to accept the fact of evolution because they prefer the story with Richard Parker – oh, I mean God?”

The novel is an elaborate metaphor to explain why people believe in God.  It doesn’t say that God exists.  Nor do we know what Yann Martel believes.  It just says people prefers belief in God because it’s a better story than how we see reality directly.

What the novel is tricking us into confessing is that the belief in God, no matter how unbelievable that story might be, that it’s a better story than reality.  That when we’re pushed to the ends of our physical and mental limits, we want God even if he’s cruel, vicious and indifferent.  That the belief in God is what gets us through this life.

Has Yann Martel stacked the deck?  Is God the better story?  Yes, reality does sometime involve madness, murder and cannibalism.  And even in the God story, people die, animals are cruelly killed and eaten, people suffer.  If the audience was given the Richard Parker story, and a documentary about the evolution of the universe with cosmology and the evolution of life on Earth with evolutionary biology, is God still the better story.  I don’t think so.  Richard Parker is like a magician’s diversion.  If you could watch this movie and blot out the tiger, the reality of Earth is magnificent!  Richard Parker and God divert our attention to our fantastic reality.

God is only the better story when you don’t understand reality.  Richard Parker is ferocious, terrifying, cruel, indifferent and doesn’t answer prayers.  No matter how much Pi loves Richard Parker and wants his recognition, Richard Parker ultimately refuses to acknowledge Pi’s existence.

So why is God the better story if Richard Parker just walks away from us?  I know many people who have long given up religion but haven’t given up on God.  They say that God must have created us but walked away from the universe and is no longer involved.  Personally, I’m confident there is no God and the size, age and origin of reality is beyond our understanding.  I find it far more comforting to know the rules of our local universe and not feel the need to blame a superior being for bad things or beg for good things.  If a bacteria, shark, drunk driver hurts me badly, I just accept it was the luck of the draw and not a judgmental deity deciding I had done something wrong.

Where the metaphor of Richard Parker breaks down is Pi can see Richard Parker, and we never see God.  It’s actually easier to believe in Richard Parker than it is to believe on God.  Life of Pi is a wonderful novel.  I’ve read I twice now.  And each time I want to believe the Richard Parker story, even though I know the truth is the story about cannibalism.  How many times will I have to read this book before the realistic story is the better story?

What if the novel and movie had been about a boy that survived 227 days on the ocean and had endured the incident with cannibalism and madness and survived.  No tiger, no zebra, no hyena, no orangutan, just Pi, his mom, the Frenchman and the Buddhist sailor?  It would have been brutal, but the success of Pi surviving the ordeal would have been just as magnificent.

Why do we want a better story?  Santa Claus is a better story than parents buying kids Christmas gifts from Target.  The tooth fairy is a better story than throwing milk teeth in the garbage.  Heaven is a better story than dying.  But why is God a better story than reality?  Is God a better story than evolution?  If you understood evolution and cosmology, God isn’t the better story.  God is a simpler story, and God’s story is endlessly confusing and contradictory.  It’s just God is fantastically powerful like Richard Parker.

Even though I disagree with Yann Martel’s assertion, I love his fiction.  See, that’s the real revelation in this.  Fiction is the better story, and Life of Pi is very good fiction.  Humans embraces fiction with an intense passion.  Richard Parker is a better character than a cannibalistic Frenchman.  And for many people, all the stories about God, are a better story than the brutal aspects of reality.  However, there is nothing in fiction that comes within light years of evolution.  All stories about God are just crude children stories compared to the complexity and beauty of evolution.  Evolution is just as brutal as the Old Testament God – it’s just not personal.

Here’s the final kōan:  Did Yann Martel write this story to make us atheists or make us believers in fiction?

JWH – 11/28/12

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