Sunday, December 30, 2012

"As the customary distinctions between religion and magic confronted strong evidence, scholars have been forced to rethink the relationship between religion and magic....Some religions, by emphasizing miracles and rituals, tend to be magical in style, and others that downplay such beliefs and practices tend not to be magical in style. One of these religious styles is not better than the other, just different. These two religious styles, the magical and non-magical, are a matter of degree. No religion, for example, is completely devoid of magic-like ritual activity."
Gary E. Kessler
Studying Religion: An Introduction Through Cases (2nd ed.)

Religion is Innately Supernatural

Recently the question of whether religion is automatically supernatural in nature and whether it is possible to deny the supernatural and still be Christian came up on Roger Olson's Patheos blog. It was an odd piece in that I found myself somewhat impressed by Olson's immediate admission that Christianity and religion are, or at least contain elements of, supernatural.

I was rather less impressed with the reason it came up and how he set about writing about the connection. He seems to have just assumed that one of his readers assertion about a notable theologians position on the subject was precisely what the reader claimed it to be. This reader claimed that Karl Barth did not believe in the "supernatural" and insisted that Christianity did not require it. I am by no means an expert on Barth's work but I have read some of it and don't recall his making such a definitive claim. Not only does Olson not indicate that he bothered to review any of Barth's writing to determine if the claim had any merit (being dead we can't just ask him), he spends most of the piece trying to reconcile Barth's supposed view with his own.

Though the mental gymnastics were amusing it seemed rather futile. Even if Barth did make such a claim it would not be the first time a theologian had deluded himself into believing something that is blatantly incoherent and contradictory. There is no aspect of Christ's supposed life and ministry that is not laced with the supernatural. Miracles, for instance, are by definition outside the natural laws. So is one of the most important aspects of the Christ narratives: resurrection.

Basically, whether Barth believed that religion, specifically Christianity, was innately supernatural does not change the fact that Christianity has to be. Without the miracles, the resurrection, and the transfer of sins as a result Christ would be just another itinerant preacher/reformer.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Why Take Offense

Tim Suttle offers a possible explanation for why people are so easily offended on his Paperback Theology blog. It would probably be more accurate to point out that he is endorsing the explanation of another person in his post "Why Do We Become So Easily Offended?" In either case the rationale provided has some limited use. It is a partial explanation that may work in some instances.

Chocking it up to issues with an individual's "ego" may have some merit but is by no means universally applicable and is far from an adequate approach. "Ego" is such a subjective and unsubstantiated construct that it has very limited explanatory qualities. It also borders on Freudian psycho-babble. The piece is too short to determine whether Suttle is using the term in the way Freud intend or if he is trying to use a more modern interpretation.

Personally, I think it has as much to do with insecurity and fear. At least some theists probably realize to some extent that their views are not well founded. Many cannot stand even the slightest critiques of their religious beliefs for fear of where any real examination might lead. Though, I would also point out that insecurity and fear are also not complete explanations. The question, like so many, is far to complex to adhere to a single explanation.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Year Late and Still Garbage

DiDonato never ceases to demonstrate just how much of a misnomer Science on Religion is for his Patheos blog. Last week's post "Why atheist scientists bring their children to church" seems like a complete waste of time. It isn't just that he is reporting on supposed finding that are over a year old, it is more notable that the research he notes was shoddy crap when it first appeared and it hasn't been improved upon.

I commented on the this "research" in a previous post of my own ("Atheist Scientists and Religious Traditions" December 10, 2012).

Friday, December 21, 2012

"There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. By being happy, we sow anonymous benefits upon the world."
Robert Louis Stevenson
Since I mentioned The Atheist's Guide to Christmas I thought I'd post a few excerpts. I randomly chose two pieces I particularly liked.

from "I'm Dreaming of a Green Christmas" by Sian Berry
     "Which brings me to Christmas - a time of year with plenty of communications mantraps for both greens and atheists. these days, it's a Christian holiday in name only for most of us, and most believers would probably agree it's gotten well beyond everyone's control.
     What started as a few days of festivities now lasts about nine weeks and seems to involve a quarter of a million different acts of marking the occasion. And it's impossible not to take part because everything to do with the Christmas season, no matter how newly invented, becomes instantly "traditional"...
     And there I go, moaning like scrooge. But, believe it or not, I do enjoy a lot of things about Christmas...At its simplest and most secular - as a family get-together to mark the end of the year - Christmas can be a joy... I would love to be able to reclaim this essential midwinter break from religions on one side and from commercial interests who have turned it into a festival of waste on the other, but it's very hard to do this without sounding like you want to spoil everyone's fun."

from "How to Stop Worrying and Enjoy Christmas" by Mitch Benn
     "What it all comes down to is a question: what is Christmas? And the answer - for all of us, believer or otherwise - is that Christmas is whatever you want it to be.
     You see, Christmas, like all living things, is evolving. It's been through many phases and guises and it'll go through many more. Given that the 'eat drink, and be merry' aspect of Christmas predates the 'O Come, All Ye Faithful' bit by a considerable margin, and could even be said to take precedence over it, what then is the 'true' meaning?
     The answer, again, is whichever you prefer. Those of you who wish to restrict your participation in Christmas to reverent, even solemn observances of the rites and customs pertaining to the day in your particular faith, knock yourself out. Those of us who choose to celebrate Christmas in the traditional, pre-Christian manner (at least as it manifests itself in the modern era - basically eating forty mince pies and then slipping into unconsciousness on the sofa) may do so with a clear conscience. Spiritually, anyway. Nutritionally, that's another matter."

There are over 40 pieces, altogether. While poking around the internet to see if there were any pieces of the book that could be accessed free online (I struck out, sorry) I discovered that Wikipedia has an entry on the book.

Or is it a Heathens Holiday

Winter season celebrations have been around seemingly for as long as our species has been around. In some sense Christians are late-comers to the party. It really doesn't make sense to try to hoard the festivities especially in light of the fact that the ideals Christians frequently claim include compassion and empathy. Why get hung up on labels? Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings,... Whatever you want to say, or however you want to celebrate shouldn't be an issue. I happen to be a "Winter baby." I was born on the Winter Solstice and brought home on Christmas day. Atheist or not, this is still my holiday(s) as much as it can belong to anyone or any group. I'm willing to share the joy.

A few related snippets from around the web:

‘Taking Christ Out of Christmas’ Is Nothing New, Historian Says 

Away with the manger, in with the solstice!

Grim Momentary Fantasy

I would never actually wish such a thing to happen but I still can't resist briefly daydreaming about putting assholes like Bryan Fisher in the middle of shooting range and then challenging them to pray away the bullets.

"Bryan Fischer: God Did Not Protect Connecticut Shooting Victims Because Prayer Banned In Schools"
Shit like this really pisses me off. I find it hard to believe it is a coincidence that the overwhelming majority of psychos who go on killing sprees are NOT atheists. Religion not only does not prevent violence and/or murder, it is frequently used to justify, condone, or encourage it.

Actually, Christ does Need Christianity

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will once again point out that without "Christianity" there would be no Jesus Christ. Shane Hipps makes a feeble attempt at the opposite claim in his HuffPo piece, "Why Christ Doesn't Need Christianity." Like so many before him he simply ignores the most relevant details. That there are no accounts of Christ* outside of scripture should bother anyone interested in legitimate historical research.

I found the third paragraph particularly amusing. It is a single sentence but serves as an excellent example of his mindset.

"Just because Christianity claims Jesus as its own does not mean that Christ automatically claims Christianity as his own."

Setting aside that the likelihood that Christ ever really existed is near zero, it is an odd comment considering the consensus among Biblical scholars is that the earliest pieces in the New Testament are at least one generation removed from the time Christ was supposed to have lived. Having been dead for a handful of decades it would be rather difficult for Jesus to claim anything about Christianity whether he wanted to or not.

Which brings me back to the main point. Whether real or mythical, the odds that anyone would know anything about Jesus Christ had the Christian religion not formed is very low. Christ does need Christianity. On the other hand I can see Christianity outliving the notion that Christ was real. Daoism (or Taoism, if you prefer that spelling) is still around despite scholars coming to the consensus that its founding figure, Lao Tzu, never actually existed.

*There are accounts of Christians but that is hardly the same thing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"God has called them home"

Normally, I try to refrain from commenting on such horrific tragedies for at least a week but I can't take this shit any longer. Do theists ever think about how things like, "God has called them home" to non-theists? We get bashed, falsely, for being cold, angry, rude, etc... Look in a damn mirror! To me what that phrase really says is that "God" is a cruel homicidal selfish scumbag. Theists are "His" apologists/enabler. Even if God exists and needed those children and adults why did they have to die like that. You're going to tell me the Supreme Being couldn't have arranged for them to die in their sleep while dreaming of all sorts of amazing things? If you want to use the lame-ass excuse that it's suppose to teach us something, think again. This shit isn't working. We haven't learned yet. God being the Supreme should have known that. There's another for the list: incompetent.

Enough with the bullshit. It's horrible. It should be seen as a catastrophe. Until we get our shit together and actually do something to stop this senseless violence stop trying to justify it with God or any other such religious/spiritual platitudes. You want to feel better then do something productive about it. Grow up and start dealing with the problems we are all responsible for. As scary as that may be the simple truth is that WE are responsible.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"The beginning of thought is in disagreement -- not only with others but also with ourselves."
Eric Hoffer

Friday, December 14, 2012

Misused and Abused: Natural

The term "natural" has been modified and expanded over the course of a century or so. Because of this progression in the number of potential uses and variations it is not always easy to spot when the term is being intentionally misuses or when it is simply a poor choice of wording. To get an idea of just how diverse the term has become I've copied the definition from Chambers 21st Century Dictionary,
1. normal; unsurprising; 2. instinctive; not learnt; 3. born in one; innate a natural talent; 4. being such because of inborn qualities Christian is a natural communicator; 5. said of manner, etc: simple, easy and direct; not artificial; 6. said of looks: not, or apparently not, improved on artificially; 7. relating to nature, or to parts of the physical world not made or altered by man natural sciences areas of natural beauty; 8. following the normal course of nature died a natural death; 9. said of materials, products, etc: derived from plants and animals as opposed to man-made natural fibres; 10. wild; uncultivated or uncivilized; 11. related to one by blood one’s natural parents; 12. euphemistic see illegitimate his natural son; 13. music not sharp or flat.
1. colloquial someone with an inborn feel for something She’s a natural when it comes to acting; 2. a person or thing that is the obvious choice for something; 3. someone or something that is assured of success; a certainty; 4. music (a) a sign (♮) indicating a note that is not to be played sharp or flat; (b) such a note.
naturalness noun a natural state or quality; being natural.
[14c: from Latin naturalis from natura nature.]"

So, depending on context and intent there are any number of correct ways that the word can be used. There are still plenty of blatantly wrong ways to employ the term. One of the most common and irritating ones I routinely come across is its misuse as a synonym for "good" (as in morally good). There is nothing in the above definition that places a moral value on Natural. Being natural does not describe something in terms of moral values. Anything natural can be good, bad, both, or neutral. Unnatural often gets a similar treatment and is just as irksome.

"Coping" with the Holidays

I don't think I'd use terms like "coping" or "refuge" in relation to the Holidays. The noticeable and somewhat dramatic uptick in religious fervor can sometimes be a little irritating to me as an atheist but I also can see why it happens. Like I have pointed out on numerous occasions, I don't have a problem with the average believer. That said, all the religious connotations and expressions can get overwhelming at times so it is nice to have some humor and/or anecdotes around this time of year. A recent piece on Religious News Service noted that there is now an annual holiday comedy show geared to the non-Christian. It would be nice if eventually the show is either broadcast or made available on DVD or through streaming video.

In the meantime another "refuge" for those who enjoy reading may be found in an anthology that was published two years ago, The Atheist's Guide To Christmas. I haven't seen it stocked in any bookstores so far this year but it was still on shelves last year and is easy enough to order. The pieces are pretty varied in terms of style and theme. All are worth reading.

"Biblical" End Times

Seriously? "One in three Americans see extreme weather as a sign of biblical end times." Setting aside that the "end times" as portrayed by many evangelicals and fundamentalists is basically a fabrication even by the low standards of Religious believers*, that many people credulously accepting that God is prepping to wipe us out while still not fully accepting humanity's role in global warming is bat-shit crazy.

If this actually leads to a more proactive response regarding climate change it might not be such a bad thing. Unfortunately, I doubt that will happen. As the weather becomes more severe the consequences will become progressive more catastrophic. The cost in lives and resources are nothing to scoff at. Mixing myth into such potentially devastating realities is bound to make things worse.

*The Christian "End Times" which incorporates slightly different but inter-related mythical events like the "rapture" and "tribulations" is only very loosely based on scripture. The overwhelming majority of what believers talk about when referring to the End Times is largely a creation of Christian pop-culture. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' Left Behind series is largely responsible for popularizing this kind of nonsense (in the past few decades). Robert Price's Paperback Apocalypse is an excellent critique of this genre.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"We do not write what we know: we write what we want to find out."
Wallace Stegner

If You Have to Talk Yourself into It....

While reading Sarah O'Leary's "12 Reasons Why God is Nice" I got the distinct impression that she wasn't really writing something for others to think about. It sounded more like an attempt to convince herself of things she feels she should and/or wants to believe. In any case, her rationalizations are as naive as they are ridiculous. Nearly all of her twelve "reasons" outright conflict with the most basic definition of God. This is, of course, without establishing whether she accepts the Bible as having any authority or not. If O'Leary accepts the Bible even on symbolic terms her reasons become even more tortured but I'll set that aside.

Sticking with the basic definition that God is the supreme being who is perfect, all-powerful, and the creator of all things all but a few of her 12 reasons fall apart after only the slightest scrutiny.

1.God is NICE, 4.God loves everyone, 5.God doesn't get angry, or hold grudges, 11.God is a huge fan of kindness, compassion and generosity
In each of these O'Leary relies predominantly on the assumption that God has emotional states. How can that be the case when emotions are most certainly flawed. In order for God to experience emotions such a being would have to be flawed and therefore by definition not be God. It can not occur otherwise and still be an emotion. Human emotions are largely understood and experienced in comparison with other known emotion so you cannot have a perfect emotion. Her #1 is also interesting since it seems to imply that there can be no connection between God and hate. Where does hate come from? Wouldn't this suggest that God is not the source of all things?

A few of the above also share a few aspects in common with the next set I found to be inter-related.
2.God doesn't want us to feel threatened by Him, 6. God wants us to find peace, and be happy, 7. God doesn't like people who act like they are closer to Him than the rest of us
These all depend on the idea that God wants or doesn't want us to feel certain ways or  to behave in specific ways. The biggest problem with this formulation comes from the notion of "want." If we as humans want something what does that really mean? Either we lack something or we do not have enough of something. If you have that something then you don't want it. More to the point you can't really want it if you already have it since that would be a contradiction of terms. If God is both perfect and the source of all things what can God possibly want? Nothing.

Again, the above leads into the next point which regards free will. God doesn't have to want anything because everything that is, is a direct result of God. This is also true of our behaviors. If God exists there can be no free will since that would negate God's perfection. God is all knowing and therefore would know what was, is, and will be. God cannot lack any knowledge and still remain perfect. Similarly, as the source of all things God would also be the author of all our ideas and behaviors which means the following are pretty much null and void.
3. God isn't a control freak, 8. God is the only one wearing a watch that matters, 9. God doesn't keep a score.
I should probably clarify #9. Without free will there is no morality which means we really can't be held responsible in any meaningful way. Any ideas about a final judgement with preceding punishments or rewards is moot.

Only two of her reasons cannot be completely refuted by definition.
10. God isn't relaxing in Heaven, He's everywhere, 12. God never leaves us
Even if you are a believer the last two standing are not all that impressive considering how vague and superficial they are. It seems somewhat redundant and unnecessary. To my way of thinking it is the equivalent of simply stating that existence exists. Yes, it does. And? Where is this train of thought going? You have to take the statement further otherwise what is the point of making it.

O'Leary concludes with,
"I believe God lives in our human-to-human connections. The God that is in us is the love that feeds us.
Yes, I'm certain, God is Nice."
It is a pleasant enough sentiment but where does she want to go with it? It really does seem to be a sort of motivational letter to herself.

Build-A-Bear Theology

I have to admit I find this phrase very entertaining. I agree with a few of Schmidt's minor points in his Patheos piece, "The Dangers of a 'Build-A-Bear' Theology", but his overall message falls flat. He is willing to concede that Americans catering ideas or behaviors to our own specific interests is not that new but can't seem to admit that Religion as an institution has also always done so. No religion is completely unique since each builds on what came before it. They also tend to adopt bits and pieces from contemporary faiths they come in contact with.

I also don't quite see why he is so disturbed by this common approach since no religion has ever been unified. There are always factions. Even at the individual level it is rare to find any believer that agrees 100% with their chosen faith. At one point he seems to think being an individual is itself somehow wrong, "We create something that is deeply meaningful to the one who crafts it, but predictably it lacks any deep relevance to others." So? I will never understand the one-size-fits-all mentality that seems to be so pervasive among theists, or rather among theologians and religious leaders.

G Word

I agree with Philip Goldberg that it is quite interesting to explore what people really mean when they use the word God. However, I'm not as convinced that "the G-word has undergone a radical change in recent decades." I think theists and atheists alike have always used the term in varied ways. He references a few sources that are well worth reading and even provides links to them. There are a wide range of materials that are excellent for spurring further thought on the concept of God. At this point I'd like to recommend two books in particular.

Andrew Pessin's The God Question provides a wonderful overview. I read it a few years ago and have re-read it a few times since. The only thing that would have made it better was if he had added in a few choice excerpts from the works he references.

Froese and Bader's America's Four Gods provides a very readable and fascinating analysis. Personally, I would divide the God concept into two fairly broad versions: concrete and abstract. I tended to think of their four as fairly distinct variations that contain elements of both but with each leaning towards one or the other.

Whether you believe or not the concept of God with all its variations and implications is an interesting topic of study.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Guardianship is not to give an order but to give one's self"
Nyika (Kenya and Tanzania) Proverb

"Faitheist" Crap

Yet another self-deluded putts with a messiah complex who happens to be an atheist is making the rounds. Not long ago Chris Stedman's book Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious was published and seem to find a small following almost immediately. It is a little baffling why ignorant fools like this get anywhere. Even though I have not read it and probably won't I have read a few reviews and have read/watched/listened to interviews of Stedman and a few of his devotees. He, like many before him, has apparently based most of his own views on both atheists and theists on a slew of myths and stereotypes.

Reread his book title. Notice anything? The implication is that atheists routinely fail to find common ground with those around them. This is based on what? He also specifically uses the word "Religious." Virtually every atheist I have ever come across does not have a problem with religious people. I and many others have issues with Religion. Religion, as in, the institution. I do not like the doctrines, hierarchy/leadership, and rites and rituals. One of Stedman's dip-shit acolytes went further by stating in a HuffPo piece: "There was no venue for atheists to join in interreligious dialogue, so Chris created a space where believers and atheists alike could share their stories, humanize one another, and promote pluralism among conflicting voices." If he had modified that statement by saying there was no "formal venue" he might have had a point. It would have been weak and rather debatable but it would not be the blatant lie that it is as worded. Atheists have family, friends, coworkers, who are believers. Have these fools deluded themselves to the point that they think the rest of us are some type of secular hermits? Of course, the topic sometimes comes up. It is also not unusual for atheists to work with theists towards common goals. We have always done that and always will.

That bring me to another aspect guys like Stedman never seem to get. They routinely pay lip service to "plurality" without ever being aware that there approach is self-defeating. They'll insist on "interfaith" cooperation without acknowledging that by definition and attitude atheists are being excluded or denigrated. I do not have faith. Atheists do not have faith. If we wanted that we wouldn't be atheists. Is it okay to tell African Americans that they can join a new Civil Rights movement if they first bleach their skin? Why should we find "common ground" on strictly religious terms? Finding common goals is actually pretty easy. How many people want others to suffer and die? We can build housing, push for cures to diseases, oppose the abuse of others all without a religious structure. That in no way implies that the religious can't remain religious. The insistence that religion should set the rules for cooperation seems to be a doomed approach. If people want to they can come together for a common purpose without any extra baggage. Want to stop child abuse? I know I do. Why can't we work together for that positive outcome. I won't talk smack about religion and no one else needs to talk about religion at all while working on such a worthy project. It isn't necessary.