Sunday, October 26, 2008

On hiatus

I'm taking a brief break from this blog. Partly because I'm not feeling especially antitheistic these days and partly because I can't be arsed.

I'm sure it'll be a brief break. Well, probably, anyway.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The universe

Whenever I have the chance to escape the city, I start to really understand where religion came from.

I lie on the ground and look at the absolute forest of stars up there. I see, like a textbook illustration, the zodiac belt that some people invented to give order to, and to explain, the 'white dots' up there. I see a deer looking timidly and curiously in my direction and can understand the urge that some had to imbue that noble species with 'supernatural' abilities.

I can understand why, devoid of any other explanation, people at one time said 'these things were all created by somebody much bigger than us'.

But scientists have shown us things infinitely more fascinating. They have shown us that each of those white dots is in itself a universe bigger than we can comprehend. They have shown us that the deer shares an enormous amount of genetic information with us and that its human-like glances in my direction are the same legacy of our common ancestor as my glances in its direction.

This gives me enormous peace. It shows me that I am but a very small cog in an incomprehensibly large machine, but it shows me that I am completely 'of' it, not 'seperate from' or 'better than' it.

That something so great and wonderful as our world and our universe could be created by someone or something who then went on to tell us what we should wear and how we should make love insults the beauty of the universe. It takes all of existence and tries to cram it into a human mind.

Two thousand years ago, I could understand it. The God concept widened our vistas and our comprehension of the universe. Today, the God concept limits it. Science has shown us that the universe is more beautiful than God. And, unlike God, it is utterly and demonstrably real.

The universe is more magnificent than the gods we have created to fill it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Message

No, not the Grandmaster Flash song.

It's apparently the name of a Bible translation. Bible Gateway has it among its translations. I've never heard it before but it's the most bizarre thing I've ever seen... A few choice samples:

Romans 1:24-25 according to the King James Bible:

"Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own
hearts, to dishonour their own bodies between themselves: Who changed the truth
of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator,
who is blessed for ever. Amen."

Romans 1:24-25 according to "The Message":

"So God said, in effect, "If that's what you want, that's what you get." It
wasn't long before they were living in a pigpen, smeared with filth, filthy
inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake god,
and worshiped the god they made instead of the God who made them—the God we bless, the God who blesses us. Oh, yes!"

Genesis 4:6-7 according to the King James Bible:

"And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance
fallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not
well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt
rule over him."

Genesis 4:6-7 according to "The Message":

"God spoke to Cain: 'Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won't
you be accepted? And if you don't do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready
to pounce; it's out to get you, you've got to master it.'"

Genesis 11:6-9 according to the King James Bible:

"And the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language;
and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which
they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their
language, that they may not understand one another's speech. So the LORD
scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left
off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the
LORD did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the
LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth."

Genesis 11:6-9 according to "The Message":

God took one look and said, "One people, one language; why, this is only a first
step. No telling what they'll come up with next—they'll stop at nothing! Come,
we'll go down and garble their speech so they won't understand each other." Then
God scattered them from there all over the world. And they had to quit building
the city. That's how it came to be called Babel, because there God turned their
language into "babble." From there God scattered them all over the world.

Does anybody know what this is? Is it for real or a joke? And why is it so funny?

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Love and the afterlife

I'm often surprised by how little Christianity has to do with the pop-culture religion that most North Americans are exposed to most of their lives. I mean, I got more of my knowledge of religion from Bugs Bunny than I ever did from the Bible, but i had just presumed that they were more or less the same thing: since North American culture comes largely from a Christian basis, I had generally presumed that most of the spiritual concepts floating around in the shared consciousness of North Americans had had a basis in Christianity.

To whit: the idea, amazingly common in English-language literature and art, that families are reunited in heaven after death. This idea is so prevalent in popular culture that it barely even seems worth mentioning. We comfort ourselves upon the death of a loved one by telling ourselves that one day we will be 'reunited'; the more maudlin of popular representations of death even show families embracing on clouds awash in white light. We enter into discussions about which partner a divorced or widowed person who remarries will spend eternity with.

So i was, frankly, gobsmacked the first time I was presented with a dogmatic Christian answer to the question of 'how can heaven be a reward when loved ones are in hell?'

It's a good question, as unanswerable questions about scripture go. The idea is that since heaven is supposed to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, if you happen to have dirty heathens in your otherwise clean Christian household, and if you happen to love said dirty heathens, how beatific will your harp-and-halo afterlife be when you know (and perhaps are able on big-screen TV to visually confirm) that your beloved infidel is roasting on an open Lake of Fire?

The answer, apparently is: pretty darn beatific. Apparently the correct Christian answer to this is that in heaven we'll be too busy worshipping and loving Jesus Christ to hear the sounds of our loved ones' flesh sizzling. In fact, our love for Jesus Christ will overwhelm any other love we might have, and we will quite literally forget about any love we might have had for other humans down here on earth. This, it would seem, is the reward we get for a lifetime of good Christian living (a large part of which, dare I remind us, involves strict rules on who you can share your life with and under what circumstances you can share your life with said person).

I'm not sure whether or not you need to be an atheist to see this particular orthodoxy as shockingly insensitive. I mean, atheism doesn't offer a nicer vision of the afterlife, but frankly it doesn't offer a worse one, either. Asking people to hope for an afterlife and to adjust their behavioural patterns accordingly, but denying them the love of their loved ones in that afterlife, seems both surprisingly cruel and ultimately unsatisfying.

And since heaven is the greatest power Christianity has over wavering followers, that's particularly surprising.

No wonder they rarely talk about it...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On foxholes and prisons

The first time I heard the phrase, 'there are no atheists in foxholes' was also the first time I'd ever heard the world 'foxhole'. Unaware of its military meaning, I was intrigued by this aphorism-cum-koan and found my thoughts turning to fables of foxes or documentary-style canine 'fun facts'.

Turns out, of course, that the underlying message here is 'there's nothing like getting shot at to put the fear of God into you'.

Atheists, particularly atheist veterans, get understandably livid by this sentence, which is among other things an affront to their service and sacrifice. I've always thought, though, that we can appreciate the trite sentiment for what it is: valuable insight into the theist mind.

"There are no atheists in foxholes." When people are safe and comfortable in their lives, they have no need to pretend there is a god. Only when they fear for their lives do they develop a need for a supreme deity. Theism: the ultimate act of desperation.

This above is not what I believe, mind you: I know it's wrong on both sides (there are atheists in foxholes and theists out of them). It is, as I see it, the underlying message of that particular canard.

And whereas it is usually presented as a triumphal 'aha!' in the face of atheists, it seems to me to carry nothing but a sad message for theism. It's the equivalent of saying 'there are no non-cannibals in a plane crash': even if that were true, it's hardly an advertisement for cannibalism, is it?

Having said that, though, there is an increasing tendency for some atheists to scream bloody murder regarding the foxhole sentiment, and then to turn around and retaliate with 'there are no atheists in prisons'.

How that particular canard works is that you quote some dubious statistic saying that while 85% of the general population believes in God, fully 98% of the prison population does. (I've just made up those statistics on the spot, of course, but you need to quote percentages if you're making an atheist argument and you need to defiantly avoid percentages if you're making a theistic argument.)

You should then not elaborate much on the stat, merely casually throwing it on the table for the perusal of others, hoping they'll understand the rather subtle implication that clearly atheists are shining examples of the goodness of humanity, whereas god-fearin' people are unstable criminals.

I exaggerate the point, but apart from considering the crazed extent to which chaplains are allowed to roam prisons engaging in extreme missionary work, I'm bothered by the assumption because it's as much of an 'ad hominem' attack on theism as the foxhole slander is on atheism. Even if it were true that, in society at large, atheists committed fewer crimes than theists, it would really tell us nothing useful about atheism or theism, because the argument that not believing in God makes you less likely to commit crimes is as patently absurd as the argument that believing in God does.

If anything, it might merely tell us that people of a criminal temperament are perhaps less likely to engage in existential thought, and in the USA (where I believe the statistics originate) there is a general tendency for people to 'default' to theism (specifically Christianity) if they've never given it much thought. All in all, not much of an argument, really.

There are plenty of great arguments to be made in the existential battle. These two are not among them, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A confession

It's been said before that it's not the finding in life that matters so much as the searching. By and large, I'm inclined to agree with this. For the past several thousands of years an uncountably large amount of people have gone on quests to find God. As a disbeliever I am, of course, bound to believe that not one has succeeded – at least, not succeeded on the main quest. However, I believe that there are large amounts of people out there who have set out to find God and ended up finding themselves instead. Which makes the journey worthwhile.

In the caves of Afghanistan lie the remnants of the Taliban organisation, a school of militants who once controlled the whole country (and still control parts of it). One of the tenets of the Taliban was that all music except the melodic recitation of the Qur'an beforbidden. And it was something they took quite seriously, even to the extent of jamming radio airwaves. Certain Christian sects have also spoken about the complete abolition of non-hymnal music.

This I can never understand. Although it's worded in a rather clumsy way, Peter Buck of R.E.M. has the following to say: "I'm an atheist, but I'd probably be Christian if I was black, because the gospel music is so exciting I would never have got through that."

Stevie Wonder once sang: "Music is a world within itself with a language we all understand." I see exactly what he means. Whatever it is, there is something about (the best) music that makes it universal and makes it operate somehow on a plane higher than that of mundane day-to-day reality. Whatever the hell the 'soul' or 'spirit' might happen to be, in the best music somehow I feel that we have greater access to it. They use the word 'transportative', and I must say that I quite like the coining. Certain musics truly can take you on a journey – a quest, if you will.

Vodun practitioners frantically chant and play drums. What then happens they interpret as a spirit entering the body of one member or some members of the congregation. Black American Baptists 'lift their hearts in song' in their churches and some people report being able to 'see the light'. Dervishes point one hand to the sky and one hand to the earth and then twirl around until they enter a kind of ecstatic trance wherein, they will tell you, they approach God.

Is that really what's happening? Well, again – I can't believe it. But what others may call God may just be a special place in our own minds – or souls, if you prefer. A place we can rarely access. Music seems able to take us there. Why it can is, in my opinion, one of the rapidly-diminishing numbers of true mysteries out there. But it can.

So does it really matter whether or not the people who make the music believe that they are communicating with God? No, it doesn't. After all, when you strip away the intent, all you're left with is music of the soul, music by the soul and music for the soul. Whatever that is.

Which brings me to my great confession: I like religious music. Not all of it, or even most of it - but much of it. In the grips of heroin addiction, John Coltrane once recorded what he called a 'hymn to God'. It resulted in A Love Supreme, possibly the greatest composition ever. Do I find God when I listen to it? Of course no. Do I find my own soul? Well, maybe... Not every mystery demands explanation.

When I was in university, I used to drive my flatmates completely insane with repeated plays of the music which I present below. It's one of who knows how many performances the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recorded. I'm no expert - he recorded hundreds of albums and I've heard maybe ten maximum. It might test your patience a little, but if you have ten minutes to spare today, I'd recommend turning off the lights, sitting still, closing your eyes and just listening. Who knows when, on a stage who knows where, a Sufi ustad sat down in front of a mic surrounded by a harmonium player and a group of backup singers and... went somewhere. During that time, where did he go? What did he find when he arrived?

And, more importantly, listening to it played back to you, where do you go? And what do you find there?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Death contradicts thee, babe

I wrote this a while ago, when I was playing around with the subtle are of anagramming and had found a webpage devoted to it. I just liked the random 'meaning' that anagrams provide: it's no Kabbalah-style belief in hidden messages or meaning or anything, just an appreciation for randomness. What I did was to take each line of the first verse of the Tao Te Ching and anagram it into a new form. The end result resembles poetry, but make no mistake - it isn't. It's just a string of sentences that I now present for your contemplation. I'd like to put them side-by-side for your contemplation, but the margins aren't quite wide enough here to allow it comfortably. So the first line of my 'poem' is the first line of the Tao anagrammed, and the second is the second, and so on.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

The tao that can be described
Is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be spoken
Is not the eternal Name.

The nameless is the boundary of Heaven and Earth.
The named is the mother of creation.

Freed from desire, you can see the hidden mystery.
By having desire, you can only see what is visibly real.

Yet mystery and reality
Emerge from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness born from darkness.
The beginning of all understanding.


Death Contradicts Thee, Babe

Death contradicts thee, babe.
As intolerant to thee
As the conman kept beneath -
Relent to innate shame.

He hesitated, ashamed; he fears an unborn novelty.
Fatherhood: some cretin men hate it.

Her eyes, my chosen duty, seem dead if fed in terror.
Sadly, solitary heaven is easy by new civil neighbour.

Many a dry eye lets it try -
Mother's mere gruesome face;
Sister's silence has dark cloud.
Rankness forms dank borders.
Hung intent: no bad feelings, darling?

I do realise, of course, that this is a sign of insanity. Nobody in their right mind would, of course, undertake such an endeavour. However, I've never claimed to be in my right mind!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The wanderer

Through these years, I’ve seen so many people in desperate and intense longing and prayer for the gift of eternal life, or if not eternal life then at least a little more time.

Time… it’s often been said down the years that people rarely have any idea what they truly need, what is best for them. A cruel god would be one who would grant these foolish people their wish, lest they learn what a burden eternal life truly is.

Which is not to say that I consider our god a kind one. I consider myself one of few people in a real position to testify to our god’s cruelty. Not that I do, mind you: I have long ago learnt that people will believe only what they want to, and as our god has rather grown in popularity over the years, a dissenting opinion is often overlooked. In fact, at times in the past, for such heresy as to call our god cruel I might have been hanged, burnt at the stake or drawn and quartered.

Not that it would have made a bit of difference. Were I able to leave this mortal realm, I should have done so by my own hand on countless occasions. For, you see, in my time – and by that I mean the era into which I was born and should by rights have died, not these subsequent eras I inhabit as a ghost, itinerant and ignored – I was a cobbler. I was a contemporary of our god made flesh and was at work the day he was being taken to the place of his mortal punishment. Knowing little of matters theological, I was on that day more disturbed by the commotion his journey was causing than moved by his plight. In the two thousand years that have passed since then I’ve had ample opportunity to dwell upon my behaviour that day. It is with hindsight that I can express regret at my short temper when I instructed our lord, who had stopped to rest on my property, to carry on and to clear off of my land. However, a short temper is but one of many human shortcomings. And unlike he to whom I was addressing, merely human I was and remain.

Did the punishment fit the crime? In my two thousand years of wandering I have seen that our lord rarely metes out punishment according to the crime. It is, indeed, much more common for our god to let the tyrannous and gluttonous go entirely unpunished while bearing down upon the meek and the disenfranchised with the harshest of punishments. In this life, at any rate. I alone among our god’s creations have been denied the opportunity to see what lies beyond the grave. My two thousand years of wandering, however, have caused me to doubt that the afterlife offers a greater sense of justice than the current life. For a mere transgression against his human form lasting mere seconds, our lord has seen fit to condemn me to a torture lasting two thousand years and counting.

It has been foretold that my suffering will end on that day when our lord returns, and that for some my continual wandering provides evidence that our lord will return. Yet I have grown doubtful that such an event will ever happen. There is nothing that can give me hope that my personal salvation, and that of this world’s, may come from our lord above and not his creations down here.

You may wonder, then, why somebody as pessimistic as I would use the language of reverence in speaking of our lord and his human incarnation, especially the latter as a Jew. To such questions I would say that I have not even once doubted the existence or omnipotence of our god, or the divinity of the gentleman I wronged that day so long ago, since the day of the death of my final living relative. When I continued to survive beyond the anticipated longevity of my mortal body, it became clear to me that the curse upon me was very real. One need not believe in his goodness to believe in god, and the deity with which I am familiar may be more noteworthy for his wrath than for his mercy, but a deity he must be nonetheless. Though his cosmic message appears to be nothing more than that might makes right, and that justice and mercy exist only insofar as it suits his purposes, a god he must be. And, indeed, one capable of carrying events of a miraculous nature. My continued existence is one such ‘miracle.’

A bloody, damned miracle.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


As far as I can see, the basic tenet of the ‘argument for design’ is, roughly speaking, a certain reading of the law of entropy. People will quote the phrase ‘second law of thermodynamics’ without really understanding what it is or entails. To the supporter of ID / creationism, ‘entropy’ is an important concept because it suggests that, in a ‘natural’ situation, things will fall apart, not come together. Things will tend towards disorder, not towards order (this despite the natural phenomenon of crystallisation, for example).

Superficially, some aspects of the ‘argument for design’ do seem tempting. People who ask ‘when you see a car, you know someone designed it, so how can you conceive of humanity developing without some kind of design?’ can seem convincing, especially to someone who hasn’t considered the topic in detail. They may then come up with some arbitrary number (like one in 100 million billion etc.) and claim that these are the odds of human life (as we know it) occurring spontaneously.

For me, however, the big problem with the implication of design from complexity is the way we look at it. We start with the end product – humanity – and move backwards from there. It’s almost as if you take one Jackson Pollack painting, declare it to be the ‘ideal’ painting, and measure all others by merely how far they deviate from this ‘ideal’. It’s arbitrary. The suggestion that the human body is of ‘perfect’ design is actually comical if you think about it. Among the things we can’t do: we can’t fly, we can’t breathe underwater, we can’t see in the dark, we can’t carry 10x our own weight, we can’t use echolocation, etc. etc. etc. And that list is merely confined to things that other, so-called ‘inferior’ species can do. In thinking of ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ design, it’s easy to see how any of those above traits would come in handy, yet we lack them. Our body’s structure, shape and abilities – ‘design’ if you will – are one of billions of way we could have formed. To call our bodies ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’ is something like throwing a dart at a blank wall and then describing the place where it hit the wall as the ‘ideal’ place for a dart to be.

Our perceptions of ‘order’ and ‘disorder’ are largely culturally defined, and science rarely bears them out. Think about the following: go to a place that sells lottery tickets and ask for the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. The shopkeeper will, at least, shake his/her head. Your friends will all tell you you’ve wasted your money. The fact that 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 is equally as likely as any other combination of six numbers is lost on most people – they have put their own sense of ‘order’ into an otherwise random, or disordered, system. Such is our instinct to connect ‘order’ to ‘design’ that if the lottery ever did draw 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, there would be outcries of fraud. We condition ourselves to believe that that sequence of numbers can’t occur randomly whereas, for example, 7, 12, 16, 25, 28, 30 seems ‘random’ and thus acceptable lottery results to us. But we deceive ourselves. Both of those sequences are equally probable.

If you are playing poker and deal yourself a royal flush immediately after shuffling, you will be strongly accused of cheating (and maybe be at risk of mortal danger). Again, however, the odds of getting the ace, king, queen, jack and ten of spades (a royal flush) and the odds of getting, say, the ace, king, queen and jack of spades plus a three of hearts (nothing more than ‘aces high’) are equal. The ‘order’ that we see in one but not the other is based on the rules of poker that our cultures have laid out, not on the randomization process of shuffling a deck.

Anybody who believes that order cannot come from disorder and that order is inevitably the result of conscious design should spend an afternoon watching cloud formations. Cloud formations are actually the predictable results of an insanely complex web of factors such as wind speed, air pressure, humidity, etc., but for all intents and purposes can be considered ‘random’. Surely no one can honestly consider cloud formations to be evidence of ‘design’.

Nonetheless, anybody with an iota of creativity can surely pick out shapes, images and sometimes even letters and words among the clouds: “Look! I see a puppy!” “I see a sailboat!” “I see a smiling old man with a beard!” It’s an enjoyable, but ultimately meaningless, exercise. We can see, of course, that these shapes are not the result of any form of ‘design’ other than the one within our own minds – our own creative ability to find the illusion of ‘order’ in disorder and to attach ‘meaning’ to the meaningless. When we’re looking up, we call it a nice time-waster. When we are looking around us, we call it inarguable proof of ‘design’ and ‘intent’.

ID / creationism supporters will additionally talk about how the earth is at an ideal distance from the sun and has an ideal ecosystem to sustain life. Again, what they mean is life as we know it. Again, however, this makes the mistake of starting at the conclusion and going backwards. Even holy books concede that there must be an earth before there are creatures to populate it, and saying that the earth is designed to be suitable to humans is no different from filling a bowl to the brim with soup and then declaring the bowl to be of a size, shape and volume ideally suited (and even ‘designed’) to hold your soup – of course you merely measured your soup according to the bowl, and similarly humans and other forms of life have merely adapted themselves (through the pressures of natural selection) to best suit the environments in which we find them. The large expanses of the world that we haven’t populated – Antarctica, the depths of the oceans, the parts of the Sahara that don’t have oases – clearly show the true extent to which Earth is optimally ‘designed’ to support us. We crowd ourselves in narrow areas along coastlines and then claim the Earth was ‘designed’ for our benefit.

None of this proves the cosmological and biological theories that are accepted in modern science and that describe an undesigned system. But the fact is that many supporters of ID / creationism do little more than use poorly-understood concepts to attempt to ‘take down’ modern science by suggesting that the processes they describe are ‘impossible’ (or at least ‘virtually impossible’. Their aim, and a subversive one it is, is to try to discredit these theories in the hope that people will then fall ‘by default’ to the concept of a universe created according to God’s will. But not only is this deceptive and underhanded, it is simply not true. The forces that scientists believe to have been responsible for our existence are not only completely plausible but are quite readily visible in our day-to-day lives.

Those who have eyes to see, let them see...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Between a rock and a hard place

You know, if I were a Christian, I’d be an obnoxious jerk.

There. Contentious statement out of the way, let me explain what I actually mean by that. It seems that belief brings out different qualities in different people. Some people seem able to speak of a compassion motivated by their love of their saviour Jesus Christ, while other people seem to thrive on the vilest, basest forms of hatred, prejudice and snobbery, equally motivated by Jesus Christ.

Of course, both of them have their pertinent Bible verses to back them up. The frustration of the Bible is not how in contradicts itself in details but how it contradicts itself in tone. The notion that fire-and-brimstone wrath God and love-thy-neighbour compassion God are meant to be the same entity is and remains a leap of intuitive logic up there with the best of Sherlock Holmes.

I know that not all Christians grapple with that dichotomy equally. Some, perhaps most, give very little thought to the apparent conflicts in the Bible. Others constantly struggle with it, whether or not they’ll admit it.

Which is a sense brings me to my point. If I were a Christian, given the choice between the sexist homophobes and bullies and the thoughtful, compassionate caregivers, I’d be the bully any day. It’s just so much easier.

Despite all the rubbish out there about how the 10 Commandments are the source of our morals and how, without the Bible, we’ve got nothing to go on ethically, we as a society have a pretty decent sense of ethics. Yes, kinks to be ironed out, but by and large okay.

I say despite the Bible because the fact is that society doesn’t really use the Bible as a ‘moral compass’ (whatever the hell that is) at all. And with good reason too – in every debate for the past few generations about questions of social policy, where the Bible is mentioned at all it’s invariably mentioned by the regressive side of the argument. Based on the people who cling to it as they launch into speeches at least, the Bible consistently runs counter to our social progress. And I do believe that it is progress; I’m much too optimistic a person to give into ‘hell-in-a-handbasket’ style fear-mongering. We now live in a world that, I believe, behaves to others with more dignity and respect than at any other time in history.

The thing is that in light of these changes, where modernity and dogma clash, it seems that you have to either embrace progress and reject the Bible, or reject progress and embrace the Bible. For me, it’s easy. I can, for example, advocate marriage equality and the right to choose without fear that it conflicts any particular book and threatens the salvation that such a book offers.

I’ve seen people who have a natural inclination towards moderation, who seem naturally compelled to advocate every individual’s right to live as they choose in dignity and yet who also have a dedication to this particular book. It’s heart-rending to see the mental gymnastics they perform in an attempt to make the Bible say what they want it to say: to say that their god does not condemn gay people and non-believers to eternal torture and has not committed all nature of gruesome slaughters throughout history. These people see love in the world, want to believe in a god of love, and yet have a book in front of them that appears to contradict that on every other page.

Their convictions and compassion contradict the book they see as a guide to their salvation; they’re stuck between the rights of man and the word of God. It’s a hell of a place to be in – one that I don’t envy at all. I respect the compassionate Christian more than I understand him. Those are shoes I don’t think I could walk that mile in.

That’s why I say it’s easier to be the small-town preacher thundering down God’s wrath on idolaters, deviants and abominations left, right and centre. If you can give in to the basest of prejudices, you can feel at peace in the comfort of your own perceived salvation without any true conflict of interest. You can picket abortion clinics, harangue homosexuals, protest scientists and artists, demonise Muslims and non-believers, and wail on and on about how the world has become a worse place because schools no longer force Christian prayers on children. You never have to worry about contradicting the Bible: it stands behind you 100%.

I can’t be bothered to undergo the intellectual rigours involved in making the Bible a source of positivity and goodness. That’s why I say that if I had to be a Christian, I wouldn’t force myself into the dilemma of believing both in humanity and in the divine origin of the Bible. The radicals who make Christianity look like a hate group have it easier: spew hatred and spout Bible quotes. It’s as easy as taking candy from a baby.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

In the beginning...

Typical boring argument:

Theist: “But how could the universe have just existed forever? Obviously someone or something needs to have created it, right?”

Atheist: “Well, but how could God have just existed forever? Isn’t that essentially the very same question?”

Theist: “Hmmm… grumble grumble, alpha and omega, er…, exists out of time, uncreated, uh… holy spirit, scoffer, the fool hath said in his heart…”

Atheist: “Okay then…”

Okay, a bit harsh. A bit exaggerated. I know. But it has never failed to surprise me how many people will say that 1) it’s plainly obvious that the universe cannot have existed forever or spontaneously come to be and 2) it’s plainly obvious that God must have existed forever (or ‘outside of time’).

I mean, I get why it’s such a common argument. It boils down to the following: “The origins of existence are something beyond my comprehension. And that which is beyond my comprehension I call God.”

Ultimately, then, “I don’t know. But I’m comfortable with not knowing, because my god is unknowable.” Which, you know, is convenient.

The honest truth is that I don’t actually completely understand the scientific approaches to this answer. I realise it’s connected to how time exists in relation to the speed of light, so when there is no light, there is no time, so there is no infinity. I get it, and yet I entirely don’t.

But the idea of an infinite god who just happens to exist without any explanation of how or why such an entity could exist falls even further outside of my grasp of understanding. Certainly that events might come to be naturally, in and of themselves, makes more sense to me than the notion that an entity with a personality, with consciousness and with a ‘masterplan’ could suddenly pop up out of nowhere (or, rather, ‘always exist’, or ‘exist outside of time’). Whatever consciousness is, it’s more logical for me to consider a process by which it evolved within humans and other forms of life than to say that it just kinda always was, within a particular deity, who then decided to give his creations, humans, the same quality.

It seems to me that, when it comes to the question of the absolute beginning of everything, both theists and atheists actually talk in similar ways: x being eternal/timeless/uncreated is something I can’t believe in, so I presume y to be eternal/timeless/uncreated. However, from a personal perspective, I can add three things to this: 1) I can freely admit that I have no idea how the universe came to be; I require no god to plug in that gap, though. 2) Whatever the truth might be (and I’m not ‘strong agnostic’ about it; I believe that we can, and hope that we do, find an irrefutable explanation for this), I can freely admit that the idea of eternity, of the universe coming to be in a sudden uncreated explosion, fills me with awe and more than a twinge of fear. 3) However the universe came to be, I’m pretty damn glad that it did.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Blaise Pascal Casino

So I picked up a copy of Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées” the other day. Quite literally, in fact, as my neighbour had left out on the lawn a box saying “Free Books” and containing said tome tucked in alongside owners manuals for old cars, V.C. Andrews books and Audobon Society birdwatchers’ guides.

So I didn’t actually have to pay any money for this groundbreaking testament to the Christian faith and modern classic of the French language. Which is, you know, about the right price.

I never knew the format and structure of “Pensées”, which is: a compendium of bits and scraps of ideas in an only vaguely organised fashion. It’s kinda like Confucius’ “Analects” except if every other one of them trailed off somewhere in the middle of the thought. It’s hardly an easy read.

I really, really wanted to give Pascal the benefit of the doubt here. See, as a mathematician and scientific philosopher, Blaise Pascal is amazing. There’s no doubt that he’s got a talented mind. He’s the kind of scientist for whom respect is universal, and warranted.

So I really wanted the chance to see his infamous ‘wager’ in his own words, and to see the context in which it’s placed. I was hoping for something that said, “Yes, people have reduced my thoughts into a tidy, simplistic and ridiculously pat formula, but the real words I wrote are much more nuanced and intelligent.”

Verdict? Um, well… fifty-fifty, so to speak. The section containing the so-called ‘wager’ is better developed and more coherent than most of the rest of the book, which is nice. A true mathematician, he engages in a lot of nice talk about infinity and how we can acknowledge that an infinite number must exist without knowing what that number is; ergo, we can acknowledge an infinite being without knowing any of his nature. A neat trick. It doesn’t, of course, mean anything, but at least it beats most of the doggerel to be found in the “Pensées”. When he gets into game theory, though, things don’t really rise much above the schoolchild-mentality of the wager as it’s commonly stated.

Simply put, for those who don’t know, Pascal’s Wager approaches belief vs. disbelief from a kind of game-theory perspective. It claims that, since God’s existence is truly unknowable (an interestingly agnostic position for an apologetic to hold), the question of whether to believe or not can be approached as a comparison of possible outcomes. The idea is that if you believe, the two possible outcomes in store for you are heaven or nothingness but if you don’t believe the two possible outcomes for you are (presumably) hell or nothingness. Thus, if you were to wager (as in bet in a casino), you’d be better off believing in God.

The holes in this theory are many. Firstly, it’s what they call a ‘false duality’ in that it implies there are only two possible alternatives, wherein there are theoretically a million (i.e. those of other religions). I had originally presumed that Pascal, being from pre-modern Europe, perhaps had limited or no knowledge of non-Christian religions and thus didn’t consider them. Yet the “Pensées” are filled with references to other religions, and in fact mention Muhammad in the first sentence, sooner even than Jesus. Essentially he repeatedly cuts down other religions more or less out of hand while trumpeting the obvious fact of Christianity as the ‘one true religion’. Which hardly makes the remainder of his treatises worth much consideration.

Additionally, it implies that ‘belief is enough’, a curiously Protestant view for a French man to hold. If there is more to the heaven/hell equation than mere belief, if life sacrifices are required, then the wager is incorrect because it implies all things being equal during this life. Richard Dawkins, nutty guy he is, asked what it would mean for Pascal’s Wager if there were a god that rewarded disbelief (i.e. atheists went to heaven, Christians went to hell).

For me, though, the biggest problem with Pascal’s Wager is the implication that belief is just some switch up in your head that you can turn on or off at will: i.e. that you can choose to believe. Those who parrot Pascal’s Wager often state that it’s easy, which is a curious thing to me, because I find believing in God impossibly difficult, and something I’m entirely incapable of convincing myself to do. I honestly wonder if there is anyone in the planet who has genuinely not believed but who has, despite that, successfully been able to force themselves to believe (for cynical cover-your-ass reasons, nonetheless).

And if there is, if there is a god in the man-made pantheon that would fall for it.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

If the Tortoise and the Hare were scriptural

When I was a child, I used to think of the stories of Æsop and the stories of Genesis along similar lines: interesting stories with frequently positive morals, but not to be taken seriously. Not once in my whole childhood did I encounter anyone - relative, friend, teacher, old homeless man - who suggested to me that, for example, Adam and Eve should be taken more literally than, for example, the Tortoise and the Hare.

I was thinking about that very idea the other day - as I tend to think about useless things. I thought about the similarities between Æsop and Genesis and got to wondering what it would be like if they were the same thing. How would it be if the Tortoise and the Hare was a story in the Bible? Or in the Qur'an? Or in the Tao Te Ching?

Well, my friends, it would be something like this:



(modelled on KJV)

10:1 And it came to pass that unto Dilash was born Zinhap. And in his two hundred and fifteenth year did Hare speak unto him, saying, Come! Let us race that we may find who is the fastest.

10:2 And Zinhap said unto Hare, Let me take your leave, for slow of foot am I. And Zinhap wept.

10:3 And the LORD appeared unto Zinhap, saying: Fear thee not. Thy name shall not be Zinhap, but Tortoise shall be thy name, and great shall be thy victory. I am God almighty. No harm shall come to those who believe in me.

10:4 And it came to pass that on the eighth day did Hare and Tortoise journey to the plains of Genuzzah, and they did run.

10:5 And Tortoise beheld Hare, as he ran, and Tortoise spake, saying, O God of Abraham, give me strength, I pray thee, for this race, lest I lose.

10:6 And the LORD did appear and Hare was cast into a deep sleep.

10:7 And Tortoise lifted his eyes and spake, O LORD! How great Thou art that thou hath delivered Hare into a sleep that I may be victorious. How Just is my LORD, to whom I am but a humble servant.

10:8 And thus did Tortoise begin his journey.

10:9 And it came to pass that Hare did awake and, upon seeing Tortoise who was approaching the finishing line did Hare speak, saying, How is it that Tortoise hath passed me? for slow of leg is he and I am fast. Forthwith I must make haste that victory may be mine.

10:10 And run did Hare, yet it was too late, for presently was Tortoise crossing the victory line.

10:11 And Tortoise did live a long life in Genuzzah and his years did number seven score and eight. And then he died.



(modelled on Pickthall)

100:1 Pa. Rum. Pum.

100:2 Recite! Have We not told you of the tortoise and the hare? And how surely one day did the hare invite the tortoise to a race?

100:3 He said: O tortoise! Thou who are slow and dull of wit. Thinkst thou that a hare so mighty and great as myself could be beaten in a footrace?

100:4 The tortoise said: If Allah wills it, it will be so. There is nothing that Allah can not accomplish.

100:5 Thus did the tortoise and the hare commence their journey. And immediately did the tortoise speak, saying: My Lord! Exalted be Thee! Loose my legs that I may be able to run! Thou art merciful and righteous.

100:6 And indeed just as We have done countless times before did We greatly increase the speed of the tortoise and relieve his suffering. Lo! Is Allah not greater than the universe and all that lies therein? Assuredly we could create a tortoise that hath speed enough to overtake a disbelieving hare; could we not?

100:7 And verily the tortoise came to rest at the finishing line before the prideful hare. And on seeing this did the hare drop to his knees and call out: Lo! I have been a wrong-doer. Surely there is no God save Thee, Allah. Surely I am but a humble servant to Thee. Alas! I seek mercy from Thee. Praise be to Thee!



(modelled on D.C. Lau)


Long and arduous is the Way:
It is like a footrace.
The faster a traveller traverses it,
the slower he arrives.

Thus the sage walks slowly, with determination.
When he arrives at his destination,
he finds himself first in line.

When we harness the power of the Tao,
no slowness is too fast
and no speed is too slow.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Chicken heads for the soul

This is the story of how a chicken head showed me that the soul is a myth...

Okay, my tongue is ever-so-slightly in my cheek. But, still, let me explain. I've never had much to say about the whole 'can atheists be spiritual?' topic. When I first understood I was an atheist, I discarded the idea of a soul without giving it much thought. Later, in university and thus going through one of those 'experimental phases' university students practically feel obliged to force themselves through, I had what I took at the time to calling a 'crisis of faith in my atheism'.

My main reasons for using that phrase were (a) it was oh so clever, and (b) I wasn't so hot on the terminology. What I suppose I meant was that I had a crisis of faith in my materialism. As I developed all sorts of dopey new-age theories, ideologies and stoned soliloquys, I never actually found a place for any kind of 'creating' or 'conscious' force, but I did find space for plenty of what they might call 'spiritual' philosophies. I laugh now at the worst of my youthful excesses (though all of my quasi-spiritualistic rhetoric was bound round a humanistic ideology that I still have), but at the time I found them hard to shake.

In the dozen-plus years since then, I've found that my interest in matters spiritual has waned, but I was always conscious that I had never 100% given up on the concept of a soul. Even after becoming a semi-professional internet atheist rabble-rouser.

For me it came down to the self-evident fact that something possessing of life, say a jaguar, differed in some concrete way from something not possessing of life, like say a Jaguar. It seemed to me that there was a 'moment of death' at which point what was previously a 'living being' was now a pile of meat. It seemed that there was a valid distinction to be made there that, regardless of concepts of divinities or 'creators', could be called a 'soul'.

Or, you know, whatever. I didn't like to get bogged down in the terminology.

When I got to thinking about the fact that things like blades of grass and amoeba didn't really seem to be much more than self-replicating entities, I usually just mentally shrugged (a difficult thing to do; try it some time) and move onto the next topic. I think, strange as it may seem, that I maintained the belief in the spirit merely because I liked it - this, of course, being one of the major motivating factors behind all supernatural or theistic belief structures.

But I got thinking about headless chickens. You know how a chicken will flap its wings around for a minute or so even after it's been beheaded? Well, of course that's meant to be a complex nervous reaction. When I was in high school, we had to dissect worms and they'd sometimes twitch. As creepy as that was, it was easy to accept that the twitching was just some kind of nerve thing left over from when the worm was alive. Like how a disconnected electrical wire can still carry a bit of charge.

It's a lot easier to say that a little twitch is not a sign of life than it is to say that flapping wings, scurrying feet and the appearance of panic is not a sign of life. But I certainly would acknowledge that it is not the 'soul' in any case responsible for these things; that whatever a 'soul' might happen to be, voluntary actions result from that grey organ we all house in our heads. And it does seem to me that headlessness is a compelling sign of lifelessness. So, I suppose we all must accept that a headless (thus brainless) chicken is a dead chicken. And, thus, whatever complex tango of nervous reactions causes it, the flapping and scurrying a headless chicken does does not show sentience or, in any practical way, life.

The thing, though, that really got me thinking was partially headless chickens. Don't laugh; they do exist. There has been more than one documented case of chickens who, during slaughter, found themselves with their heads only partially cut off. Now, in humans, half a head's not worth much, but apparently the motor control mechanisms in a chicken are located so far to the back of the chicken's head that it's practically in the brain stem itself, and a chicken can have so much of its head lopped off that it appears to have nothing but neck.

In such a case, a chicken can 'live' not just minutes but months - however long chickens really live. In the documented cases, the farmer will feed and 'water' the chicken down its exposed throat. Then, the chicken will continue to walk around the farm and do whatever chickens do, completely unencumbered by its lack of a head.

Now, obviously chickens are stupid. Headed chickens don't exactly write haiku and read Proust. But the ability of a headless chicken to keep on keepin' on raises questions in me about the relationship between consciousness and 'life' in animals. It seems that any animal that has consciousness becomes in some important way 'dead' when that consciousness irretrievably goes away. I really don't have a detached view about heavy topics like euthanasia - in fact, I find it difficult to form any opinion at all. But I do know that doctors seem to know what they're talking about when in certain cases they say that brain death is irreversible. And that, whether or not the organs carry on, brain death is the only real death that matters.

So if the biological concept of 'life' is nebulous, obviously the spiritual concept of 'the soul' is going to be even trickier. But the two have to be connected, right? Everyone I know who believes in the soul in one form or another believes that it departs the body at the moment of death. The spiritual definition of death would, I suppose, even be 'the separation of the soul from the body', regardless of the question of what happens to the soul thereafter: whether it goes to heaven to meet Jesus, whether it goes into another newborn creature, whether it joins the Brahma or the Tao or just dissipates into the environment.

If you believe that humans have a soul but chickens don't, this creates no problem for you. I've never, at any time in my life, conceived of a worldview that could distinguish humans from other animals in this way. Believing as I do in evolution, I have to believe that what separates us from gorillas is 1.6% of our DNA and a few million years, nothing else.

To suggest that a 'soul' is something that exists but something that we evolved after our branching away from other higher primates seems silly. If we've got it, they've got it.

So if chickens have a soul, does a headless chicken have one? Is it kept in the head? It seems to me the answer ought to be yes. Which means that the walking, flapping headless chicken is also a soulless chicken. And whatever 'life' it possesses (since it seems silly to describe it as 'dead') it does without whatever essence distinguishes us from rocks or Jaguar cars.

Rationally, it's all getting a bit too much. Good old William of Ockham and his rule about simplest explanations, right? Either souls exist, but it's really difficult to suss out who has one and who doesn't, or souls don't exist, and it's just one other thing we have in common with all animals - and rocks too, come to think of it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


So it turns out there is a Heaven after all. Yeah, I know... I was pretty surprised about it too.

But there I was one morning, in a gleaming light breathing that thin and unsatisfying oxygen you get at the top of mountains. I saw a long, white fence, so I started to walk towards it. I figured it was heaven, but something was a bit off - up close and personal, the Pearly Gates weren't really all that impressive. And what's more, it wasn't really made of pearl but that kind of knock-off cultivated mother-of-pearl that adorns two-dollar made-in-China souvenir trinkets. You know the stuff. Plus the guard was seated at the kind of plywood table you find at church raffles and craft shows. He had a pin on his lapel - "Hello! My name is St. Peter" - but he was fast asleep, his hands still clutching a "People" magazine. I decided to let myself in.

You know, Heaven is huge, absolutely huge. I do a lot of wandering but there are still entire districts, entire subdivisions I've never set foot in. It's not like it really matters, though; it all looks the same. It's just dirt road after dirt road with rows of interchangeable pre-fabricated shanties-cum-mud huts. Heaven looks an awful lot like Mexico City.

Surprised? Yeah, so was I. With St. Peter fast asleep, there was no one to give me the grand tour, but luckily I met a guy from late 19th-century Nigeria who showed me the ropes. He must have seen how lost I looked, so he came up and shook my hand. "Newly dead? Welcome to Heaven, my friend. St. Peter asleep at the wheel again?" I nodded. He smiled and said, "Oh yeah. Happens all the time. So how did you die, my friend?" I shrugged. "Hm...," he mused, "must have been in your sleep then. Well, they always say that's the best way to die."

A thought that had been building in me suddenly sprung to life and forced its way out of my mouth: "But I was never a very good person. If this is Heaven, why am I not in Hell?" At this, my acquaintance laughed that deep heartfelt laugh you hear so often from African mouths. "Hell? Ah no, my friend. This here is all that there is. Hell's just something they made up to frighten the little kiddies. You know, like the bogeyman. Or... you don't believe in the bogeyman as well, do you?" He laughed again before suddenly shouting, "Boo!" and completely collapsing in hysterics.

I stood there waiting for him to regain composure. As his laughter subsided, he wiped a tear from his eye and suddenly got very serious. "No, man. Heaven's not about good and evil, punishment and reward, Christian and Pagan... Heaven's just a big dumping ground for all these souls. A soul's got to go somewhere when it dies, right? So it comes here. Spiritual landfill, man, that's where we are. Have a nice afterlife!" He smiled. I didn't.

"So... is one of these, er, houses mine?"

He shrugged. "Sure. Just take any empty one. Those ones over there are pretty new, so just help yourself. We're all supposed to be assigned housing, but nobody ever really comes round to check."

I took his advice and opened the first unlocked door I could find. It was pretty grim inside, with just a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, an old folding chair with a broken leg and a damp, musty smell in the air. The only thing that looked reasonably new was the harp resting against the wall in the corner.

Oh the harp. The damned harp. It turns out that Jesus, who is King around here after all, has a bit of a thing for the harp. He figures he's creating some kind of mass harp orchestra to raise the heavens for Second Coming or something. So every now and then the loudspeakers will crackle to life and announce a round of compulsory harp lessons: attendance mandatory. But he's the only one who seems much interested. I must have been to a hundred of the lessons and still I can barely pluck out "Mary Had a Little Lamb". There's a guy around here who can play a mean "House of the Rising Sun", but apparently that's not Jesus's kind of music.

I always figured if there was a heaven that it'd be a place for grand reunions with dearly-departed loved ones. But the thing is that it's just too overcrowded and disorganised here. There is a directory, but it hasn't been updated since 1986 and, anyway, people keep moving house and they wander about aimlessly here. The closest I've come to a tear-jerking reunion is meeting some old lady who figures she might have been in a quilting circle with my great-aunt Lucy back in the fifties. But she's not sure. Apart from that, it's all fleeting friendships and one-night-stands as we while away the hours of Eternity.

There's a canteen nearby. Of course, being dead and all, you don't have to eat, but sometimes you miss it and want to. Mostly though, it's just surly women ladling lukewarm manna from giant vats onto chipped and stained porcelain plates. Though there is fish on Fridays. Sometimes Jesus will whip up a little water-wine, but all we ever get is a small Dixie cup full of it, and it's not that great. Turns out Jesus can only transform water into the kind of cheap hooch that they sell in Tetra-Paks. Who knew.

Still, it's a little something to help you while away the days up here in this underfunded afterlife. There's a big list of urban development plans - things like asphalt roads and indoor plumbing - but the bureaucracy is terrible and it just keeps getting delayed.

Oh well. Eternity is a long time, after all.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

In memorium

I first started this strange journey into internet-based religion rabble-rousing about two and a half years ago. It started for me with the madhouse that is Yahoo! Answers' Religion & Spirituality section. Well, it wasn't so much of a madhouse back then, just a repository for people with very confused beliefs about religion. Having reached a certain clarity regarding religion after a lengthy, pre-internet, struggle with it myself, I was pleased to offer advice to people who, for example, were doubting the faith of their families but terrified to accept that reality about themselves.

Slowly I came to know people who contributed to that site. After some 13 years on the internet, I made my first on-line friends. A number of people scattered around the world who I truly came to know and love.

I've never been a Luddite about technology. I've never given in to the paranoia some people have about making friends online. In point of fact, my sister met her husband of 10 years on the internet, and a more loving couple I've yet to meet.

I had no problem with the concept of making friends on the internet; I had just never done it.

Then I did. As an outspoken non-believer with certain deep and profound concerns about the Christian faith in particular that do, I admit, carry over into animosity sometimes, I certainly didn't expect the Christians of the internet to line up to befriend me.

I can actually remember the first time I saw her contributing to this website. There was a reposting of typically answersingenesis-style rhetoric, a list of Creationist scientists, a few questions about how people support evolution like a religion. So far so cliché, but for some reason this woman's tone made me approach her question with respect as opposed to with a sneer (as is my usual response for people who use a religion-based 'forum' to express opinions about science).

Then a question asking whether you'd rather have an atheist for a neighbour or a Muslim. I read it and regretted my decision to answer her earlier questions genuinely. I wrote a rather bitter response lashing out at her for what I saw as her bigotry, and presumed I'd never waste any more time on her again.

I then got a private correspondence response from her surprised that I'd been offended. That surprise surprised me, and triggered a friendship that lasted more than two years. Superficially, two more different people there could not have been: a cantankerous Canadian atheist socialist living in Europe and a small-town Texan Catholic homeschooling mother and night nurse. Her faith really guided and directed her life. Nothing made me feel happier than aiding people in abandoning theirs.

After that rockiest of starts, we became very tight friends, disagreeing on practically everything but always having respect for each other. Through the example of myself, and some other mutual friends, I believe she was able to see that people without faith can still be good people. Through the example of her, and some other mutual friends, I was able to see that loving God does not mean not loving humanity. A truly beautiful person who not only defined respect and tolerance but positively exuded those characteristics in every word she wrote, she reminded me - when the flood of Christian bullies and bigots you sometimes find online tempted me to forget - that religious conviction perhaps does not alter personality but amplify it - bringing the small-minded and petty to a state of true contempt but also bringing the open-minded and open-hearted to a true state of beatitude.

If there are saints in this world, we lost one yesterday. A long struggle with a painful medical condition finally took from us one of the most genuinely loving people I've ever known and one of the best friends I've ever made through this medium we call the internet. And yes, I am speaking about a woman who was not only Christian but who defined herself by her Christianity. Perhaps the last person in the world you'd expect me to eulogise.

I will, of course, carry on fighting the excesses and abuses of organised religion here online. I will bang my head, stick out my tongue, stamp my feet, do whatever it takes. Sometimes I will be confronted by bigots and I will get angry. I will lash out.

And through it all I will carry on my computer a picture of Debra McCullar, to remind me that what really motivates me is not the struggle against belief in God or Jesus for its own sake but the struggle against those whose hearts are closed to humankind, those who wield their religious belief as weapons, those who hate in their religion's name.

In so doing, I hope to preserve the memory of my dear friend and to honour her and what she stood for.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

In praise of XTC

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I wanted to take a moment here to thank Andy Partridge, a man who inspired me and comforted me in my spiritual journey when I was a child.

"Who?", you might ask. Rightfully so. The English band XTC is marginal at best - known mostly to people 'of a certain age' (which, sadly, I now am) and of a certain musical inclination. They never exactly tore up the pop charts. Or the rock charts. Or the Latin, adult contemporary or urban charts...

Yet I've known them since I was four. "Making Plans for Nigel" is the oldest song I can remember actually hearing on the radio. It came out in 1979. I don't know whether or not it was brand new but I do remember hearing it.

So I tended to follow them when I was a kid. "Senses Working Overtime", "All You Pretty Girls", "Grass"... I dug 'em all. Even though I was perhaps too young to know better.

I was twelve when they released "Dear God". I've spoken to people from around the world about religion, and it seems that people of my age either grew up in places that were explicitly and vocally theistic or were entirely non-theistic. Where I grew up in Southern Ontario in the 1980s, it was a bit different. Religion was never discussed in public arenas. No-one I knew went to church. There was kind of a tacit unspoken assumption that most of the Bible was pretty silly, really.

Yet - and here's the weird thing - God's actual existence was still kind of taken as an unspoken given. You should never talk about God, you should never make any important decisions based on books whose authorship is attributed to God, yet on a basic, fundamental level, you should believe in God.

After all, if you're wrong, what do you have to lose, blah blah blah...

I don't imagine I was ever any different than any of a huge number of atheist children growing up in theist societies - wondering if there was somehow something wrong with me, unable to get how belief seemed so easy and automatic for other people, wondering if I was truly alone.

Then, an acoustic guitar playing a simple series of chords. A childish voice imploring to God, a kind of dialogue - you know, like Billy and Jeffy knelt by the side of the bed. All normal, all systems go.

Then the child, simple and matter-of-fact, says to God, "I can't believe in you..."

The drum beat kicks in and the quite adult Andy Partridge takes over, rather more eloquently. The visceral thrill of hearing Andy Partridge eloquently declaim God-belief in a manner that was not at all lurid or illicit but very thoughtful was, ultimately, secondary to the shock of hearing someone just like me (age-wise) declaim disbelief.

I was not alone! I have no way to illustrate how important that revelation was to me.

The zen koans that litter the song gave me hours of food for thought. After the shock was the feeling that somehow it was all okay. That someone could be an atheist and still have a successful career in the public eye. Twenty-some-odd years later, if that response seems silly, it's a wonderful sign of how far we've come. At the time, it was a revelation.

What happened next? Blowhard hypocrites burning records and shouting about hell. An immediate knee-jerk reactionary response. Watching these bigots juxtaposed with the sweet kid and the eloquent adult and the tree made it indisputably clear who were the good guys in the public arena.

That's what I wanted to be - not a record-burning bigot but an unafraid declaimer of the truth. I wanted to be just like Andy Partridge.

And for showing me that I could be, and that it is okay to be, I am eternally grateful.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Christianity simplified

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In the beginning, God made a bunch of rules. Those who followed them went to heaven and those who broke them went to hell.

But they were really difficult rules, so God decided to send Jesus to the world. Jesus was God's son, but he was God Himself, too. Plus the Holy Spirit. And the "Word made Flesh". And many other things too.

Jesus's mission was to spread the word of God, his Father (i.e. Himself), but he was also our Saviour. This he accomplished by dying. You see, everyone is a sinner, and no-one can live up to God's rules. God seems to have realised that in due course. He could have, say, changed the rules or just absolved us all by fiat, but this whole kill-My-son (i.e. Myself) thing seemed easier.

Jesus was predestined to die for our sins. It was his calling. This is why he hid from the Romans like a fugitive, and why Pilate, Judas and the Jews are all condemned for their complicity - because they wanted to kill a man who wanted to die and was preordained to die. Their crucial role in carrying out God's plan to redeem us all is why we should hate them today.

When Jesus, who willingly died and could have prevented it if he had wanted, was on the cross, he called out 'Father, why have you betrayed me?' This means, 'Father (i.e. myself), why have You (i.e. I) abandoned me (i.e. Yourself) when I'm carrying out the mission that you (i.e. I) decided to undertake in the first place?' This is because God, who is omnipotent, could not bear to look sin in the face, and Jesus (i.e. God) had become sin at that moment. Then Jesus died.

Except he didn't die. He spent a long weekend somewhere and then he was resurrected. So Jesus died for our sins, but he didn't die. He was raised again and now sits at the right hand of God. Except that he is God. But anyway, we can all go to heaven now, where we couldn't before Jesus died/didn't die for us.

Of course, we can still go to hell. Jesus died for our sins, but it doesn't count unless you accept him as your Saviour. Plus, if you're Catholic, you also have to confess and repent and atone. And if you're Protestant, it doesn't much matter anyway, because God decided where you were going before you were born. Plus there's something about wine and thin little wafers.

So then... what have we learnt? Well, God's law is eternal, but God's law is really harsh so He gave us a hand by sending His son/Himself to die. Except that he didn't die. Because he died/didn't die, people can go to heaven. But they still have to follow God's law, or else they'll go to hell. Just like it was before God sent His son/Himself to die/not die on the cross in order to absolve/not absolve us of our sins.

I hope this clears up any misunderstandings... It's all very clear and logical when you approach it the right way.

Note: in more comprehensible news, it's Pride Day here in Toronto. It occurred to me today what a pleasant irony it is that, while Judeo-Christian mythology tells us the rainbow was created by God after he killed the whole world (except Noah's family) for its 'sins', here in reality the rainbow is now a symbol for people of all sexualities seeking to overcome the homophobic hate-speech that masquerades as 'legitimate religion' in the eyes of believers of the aforementioned fairytale...

Happy Pride.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Einstein's coffee

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I love coffee. Dearly. A life without coffee is just a life not worth living. Of course, not everyone everywhere in the world is as pro-coffee as I am – or, at least, as pro-good coffee. On occasion, I am forced to endure the indignity of the highly artificial chemical compound called 'Nescafé'. However, as someone with an instinctive ability to look for silver linings in black clouds, I can admit that Nescafé at least offers its drinkers an ability to appreciate Einstein a little more.

The chemical compound called Nescafé is best appreciated together with the chemical compound called CoffeeMate - an 'edible oil product' designed to take the place of milk. As CoffeeMate never truly dissolves in Nescafé, the resulting chemical swill usually has a layer of white particles sitting on top. Or rather dancing on top - you see, particles suspended in a liquid never stop moving. They constantly travel around, bounce off another one, travel in another direction, etc.

Their complex little tango is usually called 'Brownian Motion', and its importance to physics is one of the discoveries that made Einstein famous in 1905. If there is such a thing in this universe as true randomness, CoffeeMate particles do float on Nescafé in a truly random fashion.

And randomness can be beautiful. It's a concept I'm perfectly comfortable with. Randomness in the universe may result in terrible things sometimes, but it also results in beautiful things. More importantly, randomness happens whether or not we believe in it.

The same year that Einstein published his work on Brownian motion, he also published an equally important work on the transmission of light through space. Work done in this field by Einstein and others took science, and society, away from the classical concept of the 'æther'. What is æther? Essentially, there were several phenomena in the universe that classical scientists couldn't explain. Scientists came to believe that a lot could be explained if you just 'took for granted' that there was a kind of matter in space called 'æther'. Could you see, touch or measure 'æther'? No. Was there any proof - logical or ortherwise - of 'æther'? No. Did it - does it - exist? No, of course not. But a lot of unanswered questions could be answered by just arbitrarily creating an element 'pervasive in the universe' and attributing to it everything that could not otherwise be explained: 'the æther of the gaps', so to speak.

Æther doesn't 'push around' the CoffeeMate particles. Neither does God. There is no 'right' direction for the particles to travel and no 'wrong' directions. CoffeeMate particles swim around without reason, purpose or plan. It's ridiculous to ascribe a moral imperative to their movement and comical to speak of an independent agent directing their movement for reasons we humans can't comprehend. CoffeeMate particles do not 'move in mysterious ways' - they just move. That's the 'way of the universe'; that's your Tao: it is that is. It just is; no rhyme or reason.

When I was in university, I had a friend and roommate named Jason. Jason was a model human being. He liked the odd beer, but he didn't smoke or do drugs. He ran marathons. His body was a 'temple' and he rarely even got a cold. During his 21st year on this earth, doctors understood that cancer had taken over his body and spread to infect almost every organ he had.

Of the trillions of Einstein's photons that pass through our bodies, at any given time there is an indescribably minute chance that one of them will collide with a strand of DNA or RNA in such a fashion that a mutation will come to pass. The photon doesn't understand that it's causing cancer in a human body, nor does it care. It is behaving without moral imperative. It has no purpose, no master plan. When science discarded the concept of æther, they finally started to understand the nature of the universe. When we discard the concept of God, we can do the same.

If we choose to believe that those who get cancer 'deserve it' and that those who avoid cancer 'have earned' it, we participate in a very dangerous game. If we try to ascribe meaning where none exists, we lose our ability to identify meaning where it truly does exist. If we refuse to believe in randomness, we subscribe not only to faulty science but also to faulty ethics. We enter into a ridiculous moral relativism where we can condemn the victims of random mutations as 'being punished by God'. It's easier, of course, for those who don't have cancer to make this statement. In making this statement, of course, they imply that they - people lucky enough not to have suffered the results of a random molecular mutation - are in some way 'favoured' by God. They manage to imply that their lack of cancer is proof of a moral superiority over those unlucky enough to have cancer.

I dare anyone to tell me that such a thought process is anything but cruel, insensitive and inhumane. Using tobacco, saccharine, lead paint and, for all I know, CoffeeMate may be factors that 'increase the odds', but the end result is still random: some people get cancer, some don't. George Burns celebrated his centennial birthday by lighting up one of the cigars he smoked his whole life. Was he morally superior to my 21-year-old roommate? Or just luckier? Anybody who believes in a God who passes judgement on the living needs to examine their own hearts in order to answer that question.

During the process of mourning for a victim of cancer, a hurricane, an earthquake or any of a number of other fates not created by mankind, it's natural - maybe even healthy - for a family to ask 'why?' I'm not cold-hearted. I know that 'this is God's will and it's beyond our power to understand it' is more comforting than 'it was just random chance and it could have happened to anyone'. But I do recognise this as mere rationalisation. People want to believe this because they see randomness as frightening. They like to believe that our lives have meaning and, thus, our deaths should have meaning as well.

But outside of the scope of a mourning family, if someone sitting in comfort in a television studio or in front of a computer thousands of miles away dares to say 'this is God's punishment', they are not trying to give death meaning - they are engaged in intellectual bullying and they are perverting the comforting concept of God to push their own so-called 'moral superiority' over others. They mock those who have died and those who mourn them. They are cruel and inhuman. Even those who condemn the hurricane victims who 'could have escaped' are balancing themselves on a very unstable tightrope. The stubborn resister to evacuation, the helpless baby swept to sea, the lifetime cigarette smoker, the baby born with cancer: all of them are victims of processes that, at their hearts, are random. We have the right to draw different lessons from their different experiences, but we don't have the right to condemn them - any of them. And we don't have the right to sit in the comfort of our own homes and say that the two adult victims I mentioned were being 'punished by God' while the two babies died because 'God moves in mysterious ways'.

There is no æther carrying particles of light through the galaxy, and there is no God giving cancer and sending hurricanes. Until we learn to acknowledge, accept and deal with randomness, we will do nothing more than waste energy attributing meaning where none exists.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Unlawful eviction

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Good afternoon, ma'am. Welcome to Legal Services. My name is Ken. How can I help you?

Well, our landlord's kicked us out on the street. My husband and I don't have anywhere to go.

You've been evicted? Have you been paying your rent on time?

No sir, we don't pay rent.

You don't pay rent?

No, sir. My husband is the superintendant. He looks after the garden and in return we get free accommodation.

Oh, I understand. Has your husband been lax in his duties?

No, not at all. He's an excellent gardener. Plus our landlord has an interest in zoology and my husband has been doing intensive work for him regarding taxonomical classification.

Well, what sort of reason did your landlord give for the eviction?

He said it was to punish my husband and me because we ate a fruit.

Sorry, come again... A fruit, you say?

Yes, well he did tell us not to eat it.

So you've been accused of theft?

No, just of disobedience.

Hmmm... I see. Did your landlord give you thirty days to clear out your possessions?

No sir, he just kicked us out. Just like that.

I understand. I think we might have a case against this person. Can you give me your address?

Sure, we live in Eden Gardens.

Oh, you mean the new housing development down at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates?

Yes, that's the one.

Oh. I hear that place is pretty swanky.

Mmmm, can't complain.

Now, your landlord had hired your husband for gardening and taxonomy, but had forbidden you from eating any fruit?

Oh no - he told us to help ourselves to any fruit we wanted except a certain kind.

That's strange... may I ask which fruit he forbade?

Sure. He told us not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Really? You mean a fruit like this?

Yes! That's it! Put it away; I don't want to see that fruit anymore.

Why not? It's delicious. I try to eat one of these every day. I find it helps me with my ability as a lawyer. Mmmm... that's good. You're sure you don't want a bite?

Er... no thanks.

Well, suit yourself. So anyway, he told you that if you ate this fruit, he'd have you evicted?

Actually, he said 'thou shalt surely die.'

He made a death threat?

Yes, sir.

Hmmm... I think we might have a good case against this guy. How did he discover that you'd eaten it?

Well because one day he saw us wearing clothes. He was angry that we weren't naked.

Excuse me?

We usually worked in the nude.

Was that a condition of your employment contract?

Well, that's the way the landlord wanted it.

Amazing... so he got angry because you weren't nude like he wanted you to be. Then what?

Oh, he started shouting at us, telling us that we'd eat dust for the rest of our lives and that I would have children in sorrow and that my husband would rule over me.

He sounds like a very unreasonable man, this landlord.

Well, beggars can't be chosers...

Did he give you any chance to state your case?

Not really; he just kicked us out.

Couldn't you just go back in and talk to him?

Well, we tried, but he'd posted an army of cherubim at the gate to guard it.


Yes, sir. And a flaming sword.

Wow, he means business.

Yes, sir.

Okay. Well, ma'am, in any case, I think we've got a pretty strong case against this guy for unlawful eviction. If you could just bring in a signed and notarised copy of your rental contract...


Yes, ma'am. Just give it to our secretary.

But we never had a written contract.

Oh dear. Really?

No, sir.

You know, you should always get these things down in writing.

I'll remember that in future, sir.

Well, that's a problem. If there's no contract, it's just your word against his. Were there any witnesses?

No, sir. Well, yes actually, there was a serpent.

A serpent?

Yes, sir. The serpent who told us to eat the fruit. He was there; I'm sure he saw a lot of the argument.

Sorry, did you just say a snake talked to you?

Serpent, sir.

Snake, serpent - what's the difference?

Please, sir, my husband named that animal. We're pretty proprietorial about its correct usage.

Ma'am, that's not the point. You can't say in court that a snake was talking to you. You won't win the sympathy of any judge in this land!

But that's what happened.

Ma'am, the problem is your reliability as a witness. People just don't go round talking to snakes.

But that's what happened.

Ma'am, I'm starting to reconsider my words. I'm not sure if I'd be fit to represent you. There's another law office down the street that does pro bono work. Perhaps they'll be able to help you.

Wait... are you saying you won't represent us?

Ma'am... I'm a lawyer. I'm interested in facts. If you expect me to believe that a woman can have a conversation with a snake, you expect me to believe anything. Next thing you know, you'll be telling me that you came from your husband's rib!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Sola fide and the Bodhisattva Vow

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Sola fide
is a central tenet - or maybe even the central tenet - of almost every branch of Protestantism. As far as I can discern it, it comes from an interpretation of Romans, it literally means 'faith alone', and it refers to the concept that only by believing in Jesus as our personal saviour are we saved...

Please note that I don't speak out of disrespect; it's merely my personal attempts to reconcile the belief system of hundreds of millions of people with my own beliefs. Having said that, it appears to me that this principle effectively renders the remainder of the Bible completely moot, and leads Christianity down a path to amorality. I mean, if it's true that belief is enough, why not even have a Bible? Wouldn't it be enough to reduce the whole Bible to the single sentence 'Jesus is your personal Saviour'?

Furthermore, what is the point of attempting to live a moral life? I know that they are old questions, but I've yet to hear a practical answer to them. People will say that 'belief in Jesus means wanting to live like him and wanting to do as he would like you to'. Okay; at least that's practical. But it still seems paradoxical to me. So many people directly state that bad Christians go to heaven and good non-Christians go to hell. It makes me wonder just what the point is then (and it amazes me when they question the morality of an atheist like myself!). It truly does seem to me that somewhere along the way Protestant denominations decided that their Church was in a fight for survival, and consciously decided to create an us-and-them mentality by declaring - in the most straightforward manner - that you're either with us or against us, and God is with us, so either you pray at our churches or you go to Hell. The price they paid for this was to take human actions out of the bargain and state - somehow - that God is not interested in how you live your life, only in what you profess. It appears to me to put the Church not in the position of moral arbiter or even moraliser but merely in a position of self-preservation.

Which leads me to the real thing I want to talk about - self. All three branches of Abraham's religion seem to put the focus most squarely on the individual - in fact, solely on the individual. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all attempt to tell each individual how to gain personal salvation for him- or herself only. At least there are concepts like the Golden Rule that tell us that we need to take care of others - but the final motivation remains completely self-centred: I help my neighbour not because my neighbour needs help, but because God will see it and send me to Heaven in the end. Many religions talk a lot about the power and importance of altruism; Abraham's religions seem strangely mute on the topic.

Consider the question of what will happen in heaven to ‘true believers’ who are ‘unequally yoked’ to disbelievers. The orthodox answer – that the believer will go to heaven while his loved ones sizzle – seems to imply that the love of God is greater than the love of other people. I'm sorry but I can never accept that someone who truly loves his family will sit in bliss at Jesus's feet while his non-Christian loved ones burn in Hell. People have also stated that those who do not love God do not know what love is - I'm sorry, but it almost seems that the opposite is true (in many cases). To completely substitute divine love for human love seems unpalatable to me. I've often been aware of a fundamental misanthropy underlying the beliefs of many God-believers, but I've tried to put it down to a fanatical minority or a misunderstanding. But it seems to me that large elements of Christianity are actually designed to require people to forego their love of other humans for their love of God - and, in the end, for many people that so-called love of God appears merely to be an attempt to 'play God's game' in order to get themselves into heaven.

As for me, I'm taken by the notion that if you know how to swim, your duty is not to swim to safety but to stay behind and teach the others how to prevent themselves from drowning. How can the human species ever possibly survive if we're motivated solely by our own personal salvation?

In light of that, I present the Bodhisattva Vow. I am no more Buddhist than I am Christian, but it gives me great peace to know that there are people in the world who can see a higher calling than merely getting their own backsides into heaven at any cost...

I vow to liberate all beings, without number.
I vow to uproot endless blind passions.
I vow to penetrate dharma gates beyond measure.
I vow to attain the way of the Buddha.