Thursday, 20 January 2011

Insidious Sin

As someone who looks at humans without religion, the idea of sin seems strange. Molecular biology shows that humans don't possess some inherent trait separating us from the animal kingdom. We are as much animals as the lowliest Cocolithophore to the largest Cetacean. We all come from the same common ancestor bearing what Darwin calls the "stamp of our lowly origin". Over thousands of millions of years life has struggled against overwhelming odds, the most recent, and self-aware form of cells, taking shape in homo sapiens. Everything happening today is a result of a process of change through pain, destruction, anger, love, goodness, altruism, stealing, loving, fighting, giving, killing etc. These things aren't anomalies, every creature experiences them. All we do can be provisionally explained by exposing it's survival value. Working together is better than killing each other, unless the situation calls for fighting. Sharing your food is better than hoarding, unless the situation calls for stealing. Laying down your life for someone is better than cowardice, unless a single death reaps great rewards for the masses. One just needs to search their mind for other examples.

My point is that reasons can be found for all our actions. Nothing is a mystery if we accept our origins and place as part of this world, not apart from it. Everything fits if the natural world is understood. What doesn't make sense and makes everything so unnecessarily mysterious is the introduction of the idea of sin. Sin tells us that a lot of what we do is bad objectively. That our small actions or thoughts could be so disastrous we may eternally regret them. Sexuality is abhorred, anger is shunned, coveting is rebuked, selfishness is detested, as if these actions held within them some magical property. But they don't. They are natural things animals do; we are animals. Sin is such an insidious idea that once it grips a human mind it burrows so deep it's impossible not to have it's claws dig into your brain the moment you think. It's the ultimate form of brainwashing and mind-control humans have ever invented. Once it takes hold there's no action you can take that sin doesn't make you question. What is this but servile totalitarianism, self-imposed and unalterable? William Blake's mind-forged manacles. The idea of sin clouds the moral compass and destroys any proper functioning of conscience or Socrates 'inner daemon'. The idea of sin should be purged from our collective psyche before it and all it entails drags us back to the stone-age. 

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why the Christian god is man made #6

First, what if humans (homo sapiens) aren't the final stage or the ultimate in a plan? What if we are still evolving? (a lot of evidence points to our constant evolution, of course over a longer time period than we can personally observe). If we are still evolving, what happens when we reach the point where the humans of today cannot interbreed with the humans of the future (re. creatures, because we don't know what they'll be)? The marvel of evolution will continue long after we go extinct as a species. In fact the species that look upon the dying sun, in about a billion years hence, will be as different from us as we are from bacteria. The world is coming to an end, but our species will not be the ones to witness it.

Second, what about the Neanderthals? According to the best research these creatures were biologically almost identical to modern day humans. A few aesthetic differences and a larger brain (significantly larger) are among the disparities. Further along in the research you'll find that Neanderthal burial sites leave traces of rituals. What does this mean? In anthropology, whenever we find a primitive human culture that puts ritual among the activities surrounding fellow species' death we concurrently find traces of beginnings of religion. By all accounts these Neanderthals had some semblance of religion in their lives. Some have even speculated (with good evidence) that Neanderthal cultures possessed the idea of god. So with their bigger brains they quite likely were smarter than us. What if they had the idea of a god they thought was real? What if they worshiped a god who created the universe and Neanderthals were the pinnacle of creation? All these Neanderthals are dead now. All of them have gone extinct. Along with them fell their religion and concept of god. Their god did not save them. Their god did not come back. Their god was shown to be imaginary by the most destructive and ultimate method possible: complete annihilation of the believers.

Yet life goes on, evolution moves unconcerned and blind onto a new project. The primates that did survive the climate changes were a small insignificant species called homo sapiens. It did not need to be this way. Neanderthals could have survived past whatever destructive event caught up with them. They did not have to go the way of 99.99% of every species that has ever existed. Indeed, our own species came very close to this ignominious end as well (some estimates put us at the maximum of an unconnected group of 1000, others still lower).

My point is that the intellectual position that holds humans as god's penultimate creation is surely indefensible by any reasonable means. None of the evidence so far collected supports this stance. It could be that we are, it could be that evolution is Lamarckian, but a virgin birth is more likely than that.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Vicarious Redemption and Immorality

I have talked about Atonement or vicarious redemption previously in other posts so I'll quickly state a digest version here. Throwing your "sins" onto a person and having them killed, thereby somehow removing those "sins" from your record is immoral.

 It is immoral because it is scapegoating. Scapegoating is an immoral practice invented by nomads in the bronze age, a practice that essentially forgives the sins of a tribe by metaphorically strapping them onto the back of a goat and driving it into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Thereby removing the sins of said tribe, hitting the reset button and making it "as if" their sins never happened. The sins of the tribe are somehow forgiven and the tribe can start afresh, their sins forgotten and forgiven.

But the bad things did happen, and that fact cannot be removed by the simplistic act of killing an innocent to atone for those transgressions. Jesus' death is by far the most well known of any such instance. An innocent killed to atone for people's wicked actions. There is nothing more immoral that humans can do. It is wishful thinking in its crudest form and a brutal idea dreamed up by backward folk of the desert. I am not saying that what Jesus did (the action of sacrificing himself) is immoral, I am saying that if you believe this action hits your reset button in front of god, removing your sins "as if" you didn't do them, then that is immoral. I can forgive you if you step on my toe, even if you kill my daughter; but I can't say you didn't do it.

I can pay your debts if I'm feeling generous. I can even take your place in a jail cell and see out your sentence. I could substitute you in a firing line if I know you well enough. But one thing I cannot do is say you didn't do the wrong thing that got into the predicament in the first place. I can't remove the fact that you committed a horrible deed. No matter what I do for you, I can't say you didn't do it. I can't take away your responsibilities. It would be immoral if I did, besides being utterly false. To believe that I removed your "sins" by performing such altruistic actions is childish and immoral and abolishes the concept of personal responsibility upon which all ethics and all morality must depend. Vicarious redemption is the embodiment of an unethical and wishful thought process.

No I do not mean atonement in the first instance. I am referring to the removal of personal transgressions (sin if you like, but the term has no meaning) by the punishment of another person. This is the definition of what Jesus is supposed to have done and is an immoral preachment. I do not say that "we never needed forgiving" and so we are pretending to be forgiven. We can admit all we like that we need atonement, but it is immoral to say it has arrived by the torture and death of another human being.

Furthermore, the atonement for sins by vicarious redemption is immoral if it proclaims to cleanse us of our "sins". I can't see that it matters if a deity does the cleansing or a human scapegoat. Vicarious redemption is immoral because it claims to remove the burden of guilt by magicking it away on a scapegoat. Like I said, I can pay your debts or take your place on the scaffold, but I can't say you didn't do the crimes that would have put you there. To say so is immoral, yet this is the central doctrine of Jesus' work. According to the Christians, we can go to heaven only if we are washed "as white as snow", meaning, if we are returned to a state in which our sins never happened in the eyes of god. Jesus apparently accomplishes this on the cross.

I don’t emphasize my inability to remove personal sins as being the problem. I emphasize the very idea as being immoral, regardless of who is doing the removing, and regardless of reason. Making your sins "as if" they never happened is precisely the immoral part of the idea.

Liberal Christianity and It's Difficult Problems

I get the feeling that biblical literalism isn't kosher amongst enlightened Christians. If that's the case, and the world wasn't really created in 6 days, and Adam and Eve weren't real people in history, I think this makes it harder to believe in the scriptures rather than easier. I've been thinking about this recently. The world and universe wasn't created in 6 days, it just wasn't. No evidence has ever backed this up and a huge amount of evidence points to an old earth and an even older universe. Ok, cool, now that's sorted. What about Evolution? Evolution happened and continues to happen, indicating that humans and all other life have a common ancestor. This too is pretty clear cut, even obvious.

Ok, cool. What do these two things mean for our understanding of our place in the universe? Humans have been alive on this planet for perhaps 100,000 years. Some biologists have put it at maximum 1-2 million years. Let's take the conservative estimate of 100,000 years. I'm paraphrasing here but, individual humans didn't live for too long until the very recent centuries. Usually they made their way to about 25 or 30 years old, if they were lucky; usually dying of their teeth, being as close to the brain as they are; getting sliced in tribal turf wars over food, shelter and women. Not knowing where their next meal was coming from; absolutely terrified of lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes, large animals, etc; babies killing their mothers in childbirth, and themselves not living too long after birth. You get the picture. This was the way human life ran for most of our history. 

Meanwhile, according to the Christian belief, God stares at his fingernails and barely looks up long enough from his morning coffee to notice. I am told by Christians that this goes on for 94,000 years until God says, "Enough, I shall intervene to stem this horror. Where shall I do it? Ah, in bronze-age Palestine amongst ignorant, backward sheep-herders of course!" God doesn't reveal his Saviour in China, where people can already read and write; no, he turns up in a place so remote that the story of mankind's only way to salvation still hasn't penetrated a large part of the world in 2010. And this is the greatest story ever written? This is without mentioning the four and a bit thousand million years it took for humans to evolve on earth in the first place. And omitting the 99.99% of every species that has ever existed has gone extinct. 

Not only is this impossible to believe, if you believe a god presides over this mess he must be unbelievably lazy, wholly wasteful, and inept, and capricious, and callous and bumbling. It's easier to believe in the 6 day creation than that. A virgin birth is more likely than that. Further, we are told Jesus was sent here to save us from our sins. The very sins two earlier characters bought into this world and for their actions we are all condemned at birth. No child is born without this strange curse inherited from two mammals living eons ago; no person can start afresh because of it. We are all created sick and commanded to be well under pain of death. 

Who are these two characters you might ask? Adam and Eve of course, the very people many progressive, liberal Christians claim are actually metaphorical and didn't really exist at all. Fine, but here's the kicker. If Adam and Eve never actually existed and their recalcitrant fruit consumption never actually took place, then the implications, I submit, are severe for Christianity. If the story of original sin is a fable then it follows that no sin was ever bought into the world as the bible said it was. Therefore, Jesus' one job of dying for our sins was useless, redundant, and void. No sin ever existed for him to save us from. The central story of Christianity is the saving of mortal humans from original sin that never actually happened according to testable, falsifiable scientific knowledge.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Genocide in the Bible

What of the genocide in the bible? There isn’t much wiggle room for a warrant for genocide, not now, not ever. The destruction of an entire people’s culture and every member of the culture is an act that’s simply abominable. Quite early on in the bible, god’s chosen people are depicted as a fighting, warrior tribe. Fair enough, plenty of good causes needed the taking up of arms at their inception. What bothers me about some of these passages is not that men are doing the killing, it’s that god is purported to have sanctioned the slaughter. The very same god that we are led to believe is the arbiter of morals and the absolute author of ethics. The god apart from whom no other authority exists. I shall argue briefly that the two statements of a god that is moral and one who sanctions genocide are irreconcilable.

One justification for the attack could rest with personal protection and the safety of one's family and tribe. Well perhaps the Israelites were being attacked. Maybe they had to defend themselves from the Amalekites. But peace can’t always the goal of the genocide of an entire culture. I will have none of it in my moral code because I fail to see where such a drastic action can result in anything other than hatred, racism, nationalism, and personal trauma. It may be personal ignorance but I can't see how an all-knowing and all-powerful being can think that the mass slaughter of people is the best way around a problem. I may be presumptuous here but I figure god could have thought of some more diplomatic way...

It has been suggested that the Amalekites were sacrificing children and committing all manner of wicked deeds. Well I really don't care what they did in their spare time, the fact that it was god who commanded wholesale slaughter should give us pause for thought if we are to say god is moral.  Indeed, the idea of painting another group of people as wicked and horrible, even if it was only a few members who committed such terrible acts, is a classic weapon called propaganda. We can do better today; in fact I know the Hebrews could have done better back then. There’s absolutely no reason to enact a policy of genocide and scorched earth. They didn't act better though and they resorted to lying to each other about a divine commandment to steal other people's land. God was used as a pretext to invade another tribes land.

I know there were people fighting all the time in those places. People picked up swords more often than spades. And I have no problem with the defence of one's own tribe. Like I said before though, this is not the issue under scrutiny. The issue is the divine commandment to do so. People love to say that the Christian god is moral; this is clearly not the case because there's no situation where the genocide of a people is a moral act. I'm sorry if I'm spelling this out. I am also aware there are indications of Amalekites elsewhere in the bible. But this doesn't help the very common thought pattern that the bible is inerrant. 

The context doesn't help either. No matter which way you read it, god still winds up sanctioning the genocide of an entire people. This is still the case even if the Hebrew army was too inept to actually finish the job (or too filled with pity in spite of the commandment). And I am told the only way we can get our morals is by divine command from this god! The very same deity that sanctions a thing I wouldn't dream about in a million years. This is why I say that even though people say 'without god, anything is possible', it is more the case that with god anything is possible, even genocide; so long as god sanctions, compels, commands, or decrees it. This is why the decree for divine genocide is immoral. It would have been immoral without the divine decree, but somehow, for me anyway, the addition of a celestial stamp-of-approval makes this episode that much worse.

If straw manning is reading the bible as it reads, then I'm guilty. I understand there are multiple ways of reading biblical text, be that metaphorical, literal, allegorical, poetic, etc. The thing is, the command of genocide was written in a literalistic form, as part of a description of history passed down through the ages, and to top it off is supposed to be divine verbatim. If you consider this part of the bible to be metaphorical, I really can't see how you can believe any part of the book is actually literal. The rest of the bible is less literal than this section. 1 Samuel is more vivid than any of the accounts of Jesus:

"Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation--men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." 1 Sam.15:2-3. 

So according to Christians this is your god speaking, not some devious author trying to invent a reason to steal other people's land (although this is a more simple explanation, and probably the correct one). I am reading it literally for two reasons: 1. God is supposed to have said it, and the creator of the universe shouldn't really have his words twisted by reading them 'metaphorically' when he was supposed to have literally said them, and 2. By all accounts, the Hebrews gave this commandment a fair go. Given the existence of Amalekites in later parts of the bible, the Hebrews were probably too incompetent to finish the job, but there's no indication they didn't at least try to enact a scorched earth policy.

And another thing, how in the world can one read this passage and many others like it, in a positive way? Was god right in sanctioning the slaughter not just of fighting age men, but women and children down to the lowliest cattle? There are reliable sources that indicate the Israelites were partial to human sacrifice as well should they have been wiped out by god too? Or perhaps mercy really is afforded only to god's chosen people... Imagine if you were an Amalekite. Would you still agree with god decreeing your annihilation? Surely every single person in the tribe wasn't killing children (even the donkeys are to be killed, I had no idea donkeys could plan to kill children premeditatedly). 

Perhaps there was a reason god commanded the genocide. This seems to indicate that whatever god commands (even if he says to kill hundreds of people) at least some Christians would obey. As long as the group of people are sufficiently "bad" in thier view. Of course, there's absolutely no way of verifying objectively what god supposedly says, so this kind of thought pattern may lead to some pretty horrific outcomes. If a modern-day Moses were to appear in your church and say "follow me, God has told me to destroy ____ people" you'd have absolutely no authority to second-guess this statement if he uses the bible to back himself up. Even worse, what if he were to perform miracles to validate his personal connection to god? Now you'd really be in a conundrum. There are always "bad" people in the world that we'd rather weren't there, but isn't it just a little bit convenient that god hates those people too and actually tells men to go and kill them?

Sure, I get that god could progressively reveal himself. It doesn't save one’s position to offer Jesus as a counter-example. Jesus never dismissed or redacted the god of the Old Testament. He never said that the actions of that god are bad or that he would've done better. He simply 'fulfilled' them, which is a scary thought I guess.

And perhaps god could only speak to the people of that time in a certain way. Why, then, do most of the loudmouths ever since, who proclaim to be hearing from god, always end up advocating ideas just as brutal and seemingly in-line with the god of the old testament. God hates fags!, The Crusades, the Inquisition, Christian black slavery, and wars. God is the supposed justification for all these things, and it would appear to be more accurate to say they were following the bible than it would be to say the opposite. Plenty of holy men have said the things Jesus said, most people would be good and do good even if Jesus never existed, but to get good people to do bad things, you need religion and god.

I've heard the idea before that the war-speak in the bible may be only hubris and rhetoric, but that doesn't fly. There is no caveat in the text that clearly separates metaphor from historic fact (fact, which is, according to the bible). Some parts of the bible may seem like metaphor or poetry, but most believing scholars struggle with passages like the one with the Amalekites because it screams historic recital, not poetry. Which is why the genocide of a whole people, commanded by god, is so disturbing to them. I doesn't seem to square with the Jesus of the New testament. But the two versions of the same deity are supposedly identical.

Emperor Marcian

The funny thing about the bible is that proponents of pretty much anything can reconcile their beliefs in those pages. Both sides of the Protestant/Catholic wars thought they were reading the bible correctly. Both sides of the US Civil War thought their views on slavery were reinforced by the bible. I've heard that there is a proper way to read the bible and divine information from it, but so far that method remains elusive.

Emperor Marcian had a good idea. He campaigned to have the Old Testament dropped from the new Christian faith. He felt it would be better to start afresh, with a clean slate, give Jesus the start and the end. I believe he did advocate some historical context just to establish Jesus' divinity, but that was all. The Jewish texts for him were simply irreconcilable with the person of Jesus. He knew that shouldering the Old Testament would be an unnecessary burden on the fledgling Christian faith, effectively asking more questions than it answered. In my humble opinion, I think Marcian was on the right track. Unfortunately, he was shouted down and the concurrent councils eventually decided on the bible as we know it. An amalgamation of redacted storylines from multiple sources spread over a long time.

This leaves Christians with the stale and rather bloodthirsty god of the Old Testament contrasted with the relatively benign and good-natured god of the New.

I'm not sure what other texts were around at the time of the Old Testament, but if they made the bible look like a "Mother Duck" tale they must have been enormously bloodthirsty, cruel, arrogant, hateful, genocidal, disgusting, and racist. I would argue that the bible was most likely pretty run-of-the-mill for ancient origin stories.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Do you really believe?

Imagine you have a blue pill and a red pill, and you must swallow one of them right now and not the other.
If you take the red pill, you will die immediately. If there is an afterlife, all your sins will be pardoned and you will spend eternity there. If there isn’t an afterlife, you will just be dead.

If you take the blue pill, you will live a long, happy, and fulfilling life on Earth. You won’t die early of illness or injury. You will be an asset to society. But if there is an afterlife, you will not partake in it when you die. When you die you will cease to exist, even if there is an afterlife for everyone else.

Which pill will you choose?

If you are a Christian would you really take the red pill in this situation? Do you really believe there is an afterlife?

Or would you take the blue pill?

I’ve wondered before whether Christians really believe all the stuff they claim to believe. Maybe they don’t really believe some of it, but rather have what Dan Dennett called “belief in belief.” Belief in belief refers to a situation in which someone claims to believe something, but this belief doesn’t actually fit with their behavior or determine their anticipated experiences. Instead, this “belief” appears to be more of a belief in belief: a belief that believing in the afterlife (or God, or whatever) is good, or that one ought to believe such things.

Christians: given the thought experiment above, do you really have a belief in the afterlife, or do you merely believe in belief when it comes to the idea of an afterlife?

(The analogy above brought to you by 4chan via Common Sense Atheism.)