Saturday, December 31, 2011

"The skeptic has no illusions about life, nor a vain belief in the promise of immortality. Since this life here and now is all we can know, our most reasonable option is to live it fully."
Paul Kurtz
The Transcendental Temptation

Misused and Abused: Correlation

One of the phrases I have frequently heard being both misused and abused is "correlation is not causation." Technically that is a true enough statement. Unfortunately, the way it is used is frequently misleading, contradictory, and hypocritical. Theists, or theists of a certain stripe, tend to wield it like a ignorant cudgel. Their intention is to change the subject at hand or end the argument outright. They do not get the subtle difference between saying it does not automatically follow that correlation indicates causation and the notion that with further investigation it may turn out that the specific correlation may actually mean causation.

Correlation of events, phenomena, etc. is more than enough reason to investigate. The correlation may indicate causation. There is no way to know whether it does until further investigations are made. Simply stating, "correlation is not causation", does not prove or disprove anything. Using that one set of words to end a discussion/debate or an inquiry of any type is an abuse of the concepts innate to the phrase. It is intended to convey the basic principle of the scientific method. Until you observe, test, review, and retest the statement is essentially hollow.

It is also contradictory since most of the theists who enjoy using the phrase to attack any science based arguments they come across will never apply it to their own beliefs. Nearly all of our understanding of the early formation of Christianity is based on correlation, at least to some degree. Many of the religious based reform movements we now associate with the early Christian church contain elements that predate the time frame that Jesus Christ presumably lived.  A number of early scriptures that reference Christ can also be read symbolically. There is reason to believe that they require a physical being. Some of the specific early groups may not have actually been "Christian" when they initially formed but rather became "Christian." Correlating all these elements is widely seen as the cause both of the "Christ" figure we eventually named Jesus and the early Christian faith. This may be true or it may not be. It may be true that without correlation there never would have been a Christ figure to latch onto.

Correlation should encourage and inspire inquiry not stifle it.

Monotheism and Christianity

Even though many Christians assume that their religion is monotheistic by nature it is not. There are Christian monotheists but there are many sects/denominations within Christianity that are by their nature not monotheistic. Any fundamentalist or evangelical group that believes in a literal reading of the Bible is not monotheistic. Aside from the numerous passages that imply the existence of other gods, the acceptance of the devil as an independent being automatically negates any claim to being a monotheist

True monotheism requires that God be perfect and all powerful. To claim otherwise leaves room for the existence of other gods which by definition would contradict monotheism. If the devil is an independent entity with the ability to command evil forces and influence humans then the devil has some power. God, therefore, does not have all power and is not perfect. This god would then not be the one true god of monotheism. To be a monotheist requires the rejection of even the possibility of any other source of power beyond God.

It could also be debated as to whether any Christian individual or sect/denomination that accepts the idea of saints and/or angels is truly monotheistic. Whether you pray to or through a saint or angel, if it is accepted that they have power or influence of their own it would similarly negate the requirement that God be all powerful.

With these two scenarios in mind it may be more accurate to both belief and practice to consider groups of Christians to be dualistic or polytheistic. Most Christians would vehemently argue against this characterization but in all likelihood would ignore the contradictions at the heart of the argument. In some ways there are many who would have to ignore it. At least those who tend to view polytheism with contempt would find it necessary to do so.

How Atheistic is Buddhism?

Buddhism has often been characterized as being atheistic. This is due to its lack of a personal god. Does that really make it atheistic? As I have noted on numerous other occasions there is more than one version of the God concept. Lack of belief in one version does not exclude the other. I find it difficult to accept this characterization since I see a number of instances that imply that Buddhism does accept the abstract version of the God concept.

The concept of Nirvana can be rather complicated and nuanced. There are debates about the true nature of Nirvana. One aspect that is not agreed on is whether the personality of an individual is annihilated or somehow subsumed by the state of Nirvana. Most descriptions of Nirvana, however, include references to consciousness. To me, by definition, this would indicate some type of personality/persona. Nirvana is frequently describe as the ultimate/cosmic consciousness. Many modern Christian theologians describe God in very similar terms. I do not find it a stretch to see Nirvana as a slight variation of the abstract version of God. If the primary goal of Buddhism is to achieve Nirvana how is it not theistic? If you wish to become one with the consciousness of the cosmos is that not essentially the same goal of Christians becoming one with God?

Reincarnation also seems to defy the characterization of Buddhism as an atheistic faith. It is true that some sects claim not to believe in souls (the mechanism by which you are reincarnated) but still cling to the concept of Karma. They do believe that you can not escape the earthly bounds of physical being until you achieve Nirvana. They do accept that you keep coming back in physical form and that each form is bound by Karma. Each form somehow records the individuals progress towards Nirvana. Even though some Buddhist groups deny having a soul I fail to see how they can honestly do so since there has to be a mechanism (fantasy or not) to transfer Karma from one form to another. Sounds like a soul to me. The notion of some type of eternal metaphysical entity, whether labeled soul or not, smacks of the God concept.

There are other aspects of Buddhism that indirectly seem to hark back to the God concept. The very structure of religion seems to do so at least to some degree. The doctrines and rites/rituals are usually described in divine terms and are frequently ascribed to a divine source. This is as true of Buddhism as it is of any other religion I've ever read up on. Examine the myths and legends around Siddartha Guatama and you will see many of the same elements of any founding figure of the various world religions.

Buddhism may be somewhat atheistic in comparison to specific world religions but when viewed in light of all belief systems it really isn't atheistic at all.

Friday, December 23, 2011

"The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved."
Victor Hugo

"Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one" 
 Jane Howard

"Friendship make prosperity more shining and lessens adversity by dividing and sharing it."
On Friendship

Happy Holidays

Festive links.

Homie Claus - In Living Color

Christmas at Ground Zero - "Weird Al" Yankovic

Ho! Ho! Whoa! (Dog Boy and Mr. Dan - Mark Fiore

Present Face - Garfunkel & Oats

Jingle Bells, Batman Smells - Robot Chicken

White Wine in the Sun - Tim Minchin

Bollywood Goes Christmas

Away with the manger — in with the Solstice! - FFRF

Christmas - Atheist Cartoons

Saturday, December 17, 2011

"The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity."
Rollo May

Hitchens Ambivalence

I find it hard to view Christopher Hitchens death as tragic. It is sad when any fellow human being dies before they are old and decrepit. However, he did not exactly live a healthy lifestyle. I don't think I ever saw him without a cigarette and he admitted to drinking to excess. I also think he was highly over-rated in terms of both his writing and his speaking ability. Of all the so called New Atheist he was by far the weakest intellectually. I was somewhat fascinated by him. I started reading his work in High School.

I got the impression early on that people who ended up taking a liking to him did so due to style rather than any particular talent. My own initial impression of him was that he was booze fueled windbag. Of the books, articles, and columns I read of his over the years only one impressed me, The Trial of Henry Kissinger. It was the only thing he ever wrote that was actually good from start to finish. Far too often he either went off on tangents or failed to support whatever point he was trying to make. Many atheists seemed to be awed by God Is Not Great. I was a little disappointed. I probably would have been very upset had I not already had low expectations. There was nothing in it that other had not already written about and written better.

It is sad that he died but I did not think much of him while he was alive and see no reason to pretend otherwise now that he is dead. Praise for him has already spread throughout the blogosphere and I have no doubt he be eulogized glowingly on any number of websites and podcasts over the next week or two. Having been a prominent atheist figure I understand that. I just wish people had more perspective. He stood up for atheists and I respected him for that. But he was not nearly as great as he is now being made out to be.

I have to thank PZ Meyers for at least acknowledging that Hitchens had his flaws in one of his Pharyngula posts, The dark side of Hitchens.

Christ?mass ConFusion

It never ceases to amaze me how clueless and credulous the average Christian can be. The holiday season inevitably leads to a heavy dose of all sorts of ridiculous pieces on Christmas and Jesus. All of them contain massive amounts of sentimentalized delusions. Most scriptural scholars, many are themselves believers, will freely admit that the odds of Christ having been born in December is virtually zero let alone being born specifically on the 25th. Nearly every aspect of Christmas has its origin outside Christianity. Yet, every December we are deluged with the same types of stories that inevitably lead to various groups of Christians whining about either not having the season go the way they want or bemoaning the various hassles that they themselves have created.

If you want to celebrate the "birth of Christ" and forgo Santa and the "secular" intruders on the season, go ahead. No one is stopping you. If you don't want to shop, bake, clean, or have company, don't. No one is making you do those things. And if you want to recount for the zillionth time the nativity story, go ahead. Don't assume, however, that the rest of us are interested or have to show any care for it.

And for the record, fighting over the true nature of Christ and the details of his life is just plain stupid. He never actually existed. You can make up whatever you want. You can find a passage in the New Testament to support just about anything since it is alternately vague, contradictory, and incoherent. So when someone says Christ was ______, just nod and grin. You are both right and wrong. Once again, Christ is a myth. Get over it.

It is also rather ironic that both camps of whiners fail to see that, just maybe, if they spent more time enjoying the Holiday Season festivities with their loved ones and less time bitching they might end up living the ideals they claim the season is about. Personally, I don't care if they want to treat it as some type of metaphysical superstition laden birthday party. For me it is all about spending time with family and friends. It would be nice, however, if the various disgruntled Christians complaining about the season as it is would take a long look in the mirror and shut the fuck up.

A Question of Civil Rights?

I agree with much of what Eboo Patel says in his recent post "Attacking Mitt Romney, Attacking Faith" but with a few caveats. I firmly believe that everyone has a right to believe whatever they choose, which includes religious ideas. However, Patel seems to be confusing the idea of respecting an individual's rights with respecting the ideas that individual subscribes to. There is a huge difference. I can easily agree that you have a right to believe in faeries but that doesn't mean I am compelled to accept or tolerate that idea. In fact, it's my right to think you are complete moron for believing such nonsense.

Patel also makes an incredibly idiotic comparison when he states, "...our society has, again for the most part, recognized that counting someone's race against her in a political election is an act prejudice, and it's bad. So why is counting someone's religion against him any less an act of prejudice?" Why? You do not choose your gender (at least not till you are a legal adult) or ethnicity. Gender and ethnicity also do not come with a set of beliefs. Simply being a male Caucasian does not mean I have to believe x, y, or z. You choose a religion. Whether you end up following all the doctrines or practices is a separate matter but by choosing the specific religion you are at the least publicly endorsing those ideas and behaviors.

He is right that no one should be denied rights because of the faith they have chosen but that is not what is happening with Romney or any other politician who publicly proclaims, and rather loudly, their particular religious beliefs. I see no reason to apologize for thinking that Romney is not qualified to run the country I live in because among other things he is a practicing Mormon. As far as I'm concerned, anyone who thinks their underwear (look it up) is magical is too fucking ignorant and stupid to run a country. I don't really care what the source of such a ridiculous notion is. If you endorse a system of beliefs that contains a huge amount of ludicrous ideas I'm going to assume you are an intellectual cripple incapable of making important policy decisions. I fail to see that as being a civil rights infringement. If there is evidence that clearly demonstrated that those ideas are sound I'll be happy to apologize and reconsider my own position. Till that time I'm going to reserve my right to think that Romney is an incompetent delusion ass.

Phil Zuckerman Interview

Recently on Culture Shocks Barry Lyn Interviewed Phil Zuckerman. It was a very interesting interview that I would recommend listening to highly. There were a number of questions and points I thought should have been elaborated on but in a set time frame it is impossible to cover everything.

One point I would have loved to have added to involved the question of whether the belief in God has to include the idea of perfection. It does not. However, removing perfection as a trait of God does change quite a bit. Many theists seem to think removing this trait solves a lot of inconsistencies and contradictions. It might but it also opens up a whole other set. It, among other things, opens the door to polytheism. If God is perfect and therefore all powerful there can be no other source of power. This eliminates the possibility of other gods. If God is not perfect then God is not all powerful which means there is no reason not believe other gods are not possible. After all, there is no other species that is limited to a single specimen. It also leaves open the implication that the Christian god is not eternal, is not the source of all things, and can be supplanted by another being. All points that Christian theology, regardless of sect/denomination, all vehemently deny. Basically, if theists want their god to be God, the one true god, then perfection is required. Back to square one and all its absurdities.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“Ethical teaching is weakened if it is tied up with dogmas that will not bear examination.”
Margaret Knight
Morals Without Religion

"Ordinary heroism"*

"...when someone does dedicate their lives to helping the poor, we tend to think that they have gone beyond the call of duty, not simply done what morality requires. It could be, of course, that we like to think this because it gets us off the hook. After all, if morality required that we did the same, then we are moral failures..." (Baggini 44)

This poses a number of interesting questions and thoughts. I think it is true that our heroes are never quite as heroic as we make them out to be. That isn't to say they don't deserve to be admired. It has more to do with how we idealize those who accomplish more than we do ourselves. It makes me wonder if an individual's flaws can be as inspirational as their strengths. Do we need to idealize others? Can we respect their accomplishments while acknowledging their shortcomings. Can we use both sides of our heroes to spur ourselves to greater goals and deeds? Can it it help us see our own flaws if we acknowledge theirs?" I don't really know but I think it is well worth contemplating.

*Baggini, Julian.  "15. Ordinary heroism" The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. New York: Penguin Group, 2005.

Atheist Scientists and Religious Traditions

I've come across Elaine Howard Ecklund previously and can say I'm not impressed. She comes across as a pleasant enough person but she really does not know much about one of her favored topics, Atheist Scientists.

It will probably takes some time to get a copy of her latest work (with Kristen Schultz Lee) in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , "Atheists and Agnostics Negotiate Religion and Family." I can get it free through a library database if I were willing to wait a year (publisher has a 12 month "embargo"), which I'm not. I will find a copy.

In the mean time the brief review I have read leads me to think it is probably as sloppy as her previous work.  There are a number of things implied in's piece on her latest article that don't add up. The title itself has implications that I'd be shocked to find were accurate to the answers given by the scientists Ecklund and Lee interviewed. The statement that scientists "embrace religious traditions" does not seem to be supported even by what little is described. It sounds more like these individuals feel pressured by the prevailing culture to participate. That is not the same as embracing something. I also want to see their specific responses since I find it hard to believe any atheist let alone a scientist would view religion as a "source of knowledge." I can see them commenting on it being a source of tradition, sense of community, or comfort.

There is also an interesting embedded video clip that reveals her own ignorance and bias when it comes to atheists. She seems to be genuinely shocked that atheist scientist are not "against religious people."  I have never come across any atheists that are against religious people. Many of us may be opposed to religion but that is not the same thing. Most of my family and friends are religious. I love them dearly and would not want to change them. The institution of religion is despicable. I loathe it's doctrines and its grip on society. I would love to have the majority, including my family and friend, to come to that realization but I would want them to come to that realization on their own terms.

PZ Meyers has commented on this article as well. He makes a pretty good point about how Ecklund skews her findings. He notes that her own findings only note 17% of the interviewees participating in religion.  So the truth is that the overwhelming majority of atheist scientists reject rather than "embrace religious traditions." That, of course, is never emphasized by Ecklund. It seems obvious to me that all her conclusions on atheists is a result of preconceived notions and ulterior motives rather than the data she collects.

Monotheism and Morality

I not only would disagree that religion is the best source of morality I would go so far as to say it is not a source of morality at all. I do not believe that people actually get their values and ethics from religion. Theists may believe that they do but if you examine what each religion's doctrines and scriptures pass off as moral lessons it becomes clear that they can not be where individual believers are actually getting their morals. There is a huge disconnect even among the more fundamentalist theists. All believers interpret and pick and choose what they accept and apply.

In regard to monotheism I do not even accept that it is possible to gain morals from faith. I see monotheism as being amoral by its nature. I would emphasize that is amoral not immoral. I am in no way implying that monotheists lack morals, they do not. Most monotheists I know have excellent values and ethics. Despite what they themselves see as the source I would argue that it is not from their faith.

As I see it, to have morality requires two main components; knowledge of right and wrong and the ability to act on that knowledge. Monotheism fails on both counts. God as portrayed in scriptures is a hideous and quite hypocritical monster. The more abstract version of the God concept is too amorphous to be of any practical use. The moment you contemplate this God beyond a very basic definition you ended up running into all sorts of inconsistencies and contradictions. The more you attempt to describe/explain the more limitations you place on God. Since God is supposedly perfect this is self-defeating. I fail to see how such a vague and frequently divisive concept can lead to any practical knowledge of right and wrong.

It is also difficult to see how any true monotheist would have the ability to act on any knowledge they do gain about right and wrong. I do not see that the concept of free will is in any way compatible with the concept of God. This, of course, assumes God being defined as perfect and all powerful. Despite claims to the contrary, such a God would negate the notion of free will. For God to grant free will would require giving up both omnipotence and omniscience but that would immediately negate God itself by definition. An individual can not act in a way that is contrary to God. Since theists can not act contrary to God they have no free will and no responsibility. Basically, if God exist we are merely meat puppets. If you can not choose and can not be responsible you can not be either moral or immoral. Each theist simply is and must do what God has determined.

Theists like atheist gain their ethics and values from a wide variety of sources. Genetics, environment, socio-cultural factors, and parenting among others all play a role. And yes, indirectly religion as an aspect of culture and social interaction can play a role. It is not, however, the religion in itself but rather the ways the individual adherents interact.

Monotheism is amoral.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it."
George Bernard Shaw

Lobbying for God

$390 million a year! That's how much money is spent on lobbying for "religion-related advocacy" according to the Pew Research Center. Why? Doesn't it strike any of these theists as a little odd that so much money is needed for matters they themselves claim God wants? Doesn't it ever occur to them that the effort is a complete waste and for a variety of reasons. If God intended things to be a particular way why wouldn't they be that way already? If it is not God's intention how can you possibly succeed? Isn't it a tad bit arrogant to assume you know better or can do better than God? Unless, they aren't really lobbying for God but rather are just using religion as an excuse or a ploy to do what they themselves want to do.

Righteous Vote Rigging?

Republican, Conservative, Religious Right; these terms are not synonymous but there is a considerable amount of overlap. All three are certainly interested in gaining power by any means. Over the past few years they have routinely pushed for restrictions on voting. Sometimes these restrictions are in the form of regulations (which they usually oppose rather vocally) or laws. Sometimes it is in the form of social activities. They have pushed politics in the pulpit. It is also not uncommon for many voting wards/precincts in "red" states to be locating in places of worship. This seems to contradict the view that the "almighty" is actually all powerful. After all  if God wanted a specific politician elected or law passed why would they need to try rigging the results?

An article in this month's American Prospect, "Who Stole the Election?", summed up the Right's need for vote tampering pretty well. The quotation from Paul Weyrich is quite telling, "I don't want everybody to vote. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down."

If you don't know who Weyrich is I would encourage you to look him up. He was a longtime Republican/Conservative activist and a founding figure in the rise of the Religious Right.

Christians Don't Own December

Why do some Christians think they own the whole concept of Holidays. While surfing radio stations the past few weeks I have heard some rather obnoxious whining about how terrible phrases like, "happy holidays", "seasons greetings", and "holiday tree" are supposed to be. Really? What a bunch of arrogant cry babies. These ignorant assholes seem to think that not only is Christmas the only holiday that occurs in December but that everyone should bow down to their personal whims.

Just for clarification there are a number of other holidays that are occurring this month. Among them, in no particular order, are Hannukah, Omisoka, Muharram, Ashura, Bodhi Day, Winter Solstice, and Kwanza. I haven't heard any Hindus, Muslims, or Buddhists whining that no one is wishing others a happy Ashura or some other specific holiday.

Most of the traditions these same pinheads bitch about not being taken seriously anymore are not even exclusively or originally Christian. The tree was used as a religious symbol long before Christianity ever formed. It is also not as if Christianity doesn't already dominate our culture. We can't even get through Halloween anymore before being barraged by all sorts of Christmas themed ads and "news" puff pieces on the networks and every other media outlet.

It also seems a pointless rant since if they want to use the term Christmas nothing is stopping them. No one is even attempting to ban the word. So why complain? Do they have to be so arrogant as to insist everyone, whether Christian or not, conform to their narrow ways? Maybe non-believers should start a holiday label campaign. What about happy incestuous adultery day? After all, God the "Father" knocked up a young woman who was at the time either engaged or married* in order for her to give birth to himself, the "Son." That's right he slept with another man's bride who ended up being his own mom. There's a festive thought for the holidays.

*Scripture does not seem to support Mary being married at the time but I've heard a few religious right windbags trying to make the case. I assume they got fed up with jokes about her being an unwed mother. It's amazing the contortions that the "literal word of God" variety of Christians go through to make the Bible say what they want it to say.