Sunday, June 29, 2008

Christianity simplified

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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

Bookmark and Share

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.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

When good marriages go bad

Bookmark and Share

I'm really at my wit's end these days... I really don't know what to do. Sometimes I figure maybe I should just run away and start a new life - just me and my son. I mean, I may be a little over the hill but I'm still beautiful for my hundred years. I'm sure I can find someone who will love me and my son...

My so-called husband has just come back from the mountain. He took off a few days ago with my son. It turns out he got it into his head that God had told him to kill our son... That's right! Our only son - the one I waited decades and decades to have. The one that my husband claimed God had promised again and again... "We'll have a son one day; I'll be the father of nations; God has told me so..." I'd heard it so many times it made me laugh... And now here he is, taking that same boy up to the mountains to slit his throat!

Now, I have to admit that my husband's so-called conversations with God have often tested my patience. I mean, I couldn't have children, so I can't say I was that surprised when he said that God had instructed him to sleep with our servant... This is the same man, after all, who told me that God had told him to lie to the Pharoah and call me his sister: the man who sold me to the Pharoah because he was too scared to fight him. "It's better this way," he said. Yeah right. I should have left him then, really, and stayed with the Pharoah. But no, there just had to be a bunch of plagues, didn't there? And the Pharoah just had to give me back, didn't he?

So by the time that whore of a servant got herself knocked up, I was really ready to expect anything. He'd been babbling so much about the 'father of nations' thing that I guess I just let it be... Let him have his fun with our servant, I said...

After all, there was a son in our house, even if it wasn't mine. My husband kind of seemed to return to normal. It looked like we were kind of settling down into a relatively calm old age... That is until one day he comes home saying that he and God had had another conversation, that we ought to change our names and that all the men in our house had to cut off part of their penises. And that old 'father of nations' hogwash again!

"Come on," I said, "I like my name. And why are you going to make all the men mutilate themselves?" But he wasn't hearing anything of it. "You're going to be a mother!" he was babbling. Calling me by that crazy new name he claimed God had told him to use... Another mid-life crisis, I thought. So off went all the foreskins and next thing I knew he's running with some so-called angels into his nephew's hometown. A few days later he's telling me that God killed everyone in the city except his nephew and his family. Turned the kid's wife into salt too... Later on it turns out that he knocked up his two daughters too - claimed they got him drunk and did the deed. Some family values, eh? Can you imagine the family reunions we have? Can there be any family more dysfunctional in the Holy Land than ours?

So on it goes, and suddenly my husband's back to the old "She's my sister" game and there's some other old lecherous guy hitting on me. "Better say I'm your brother or they'll kill me!" he starts snivelling. Some husband. Some protector...

Well, for better or for worse, I finally did get my own beautiful son. And I finally kicked that whore of a servant and her arrogant bastard son out of my house. I got to thinking, "Okay, I've got a loser of a husband but things aren't so bad. I mean, I've got this beautiful son here..."
And now I hear this... Naturally, our son's scared witless, saying to me "The old man's gone senile! Keep him away from me!" My husband's sitting there, tail between his legs, saying "Yeah, but God told me to do it! And anyway, I didn't kill him, did I? I killed a ram instead..." "What," I say, "if God told you to jump off a bridge, would you?"

Actually I half wish that God would tell him to jump off a bridge! Maybe then my son and I can score a decent inheritance and we won't have any more nutbars running around saying "God told me this! God told me that!"