Tags: christianity


An open letter to Ray Comfort

This morning I wrote a letter to christian super-evangelist, Ray Comfort, with regards to a point he has made a few hundred million times before, and which I felt I needed some clarification on. I thus present the complete text of the e-mail I sent him below.


Dear Mr. Comfort.

Earlier today, I read an interview with you on the topic of your abridged version of The Origin of the Species, and specifically your introduction to the book. In it, you made reference to the science of evolution's “undeniable connection” to the holocaust. This is not a new claim, and not one that I am not unfamiliar with, but on this occasion, I felt motivated to investigate the claim for myself. I found that, broadly speaking, there is some truth to what you say; some of Hitler’s stated justifications for the holocaust do indeed include his misinterpretations and misapplications of the science of evolution.

This says nothing whatsoever about whether or not the science of evolution is valid or true, though; merely whether or not it is of benefit to society that people be aware of it. Assuming, for the sake of argument, then, that you are correct, and that without having this body of knowledge to misinterpret and misapply as Hitler did, the holocaust would not have taken place (which I am dubious about; it seems to me that he would have found some other justification to hang his irrational hatred of “the other” on, just as so many creeds, philosophies and religions have been abused for the purposes of over the course of human history), I wonder if you will then apply this same standard to other bodies of knowledge without which he also could not have accomplished the horrible deeds that he did?

For example, will I hear a similar denouncement of the science of metallurgy for its undeniable connection to the holocaust? Without access to this body of knowledge, Hitler’s forces would have had no train tracks, no trains, no bullets, no gas chambers, no metal fences, among many, many other implements which were critical to his execution of the many “undesirables” during the holocaust.

Will I be hearing of your outrage at the science of masonry, and its undeniable connection to the holocaust? Without the ability to produce bricks and construct buildings of them, the nazis would have been unable to house the infrastructure of their murderous war machine, and their death camps would surely not have been the inescapable prisons that they were. Nobody will claim that masonry is not a valid field of knowledge, but neither can the claim be made that without it, the nazis would have been all but powerless to carry out their extermination regime.

Indeed, even the body of knowledge of language itself has the very same undeniable connection to the holocaust that the science of evolution does. Indeed, it has an even deeper and more fundamental connection; without knowledge of language, Hitler would never even have had access to the ideas that he did, would never have been able to convey them to the German people, and would never have been able to conduct his orders to the countless thousands of devout Christians who worked as death camp guards and operators*, without whose enthusiastic support, Hitler’s will could never have been executed. Will I therefore be hearing you tar language itself with the same brush that you apply to evolution? And if so, how do you plan on doing so without employing the Nazi-related science of language?

I ask these questions because I know that as a man of god and as a man of learning such as yourself, honesty, integrity and consistency are indispensable and invaluable, and that your condemnation of these bodies of knowledge must surely be merely waiting in the wings alongside your condemnation of the body of knowledge which is the science of evolution, and that you have simply not found the time or opportunity to make clear your moral outrage that these knowledges should be allowed to be taught, given their shared history of nazism. If this is the case, I am more than prepared not only to hear this condemnation from you, but to tell all who would listen that you are indeed a man of conviction, of principle and of integrity, and that you are willing to apply the same standards to all of the sciences which Hitler and his forces made use of in the same manner and to the same extent, and indeed for the same reasons.

I thank you for your time and attention, sir, and eagerly await your reply.

•    I realize that a lesser man than yourself might be tempted into falling prey to a “no true Scotsman” fallacy in responding to this point, but I have every confidence in your ability to rise above such obvious traps.

Better late to the party than never to show up.

Part 1

I’ve been pretty active in the online atheist community for the past ten years or so, in one form or another, and in that time, I’ve heard all sorts of arguments for and against all sorts of crazy religious beliefs. I had a thought, today, which I realize that I’ve never, in all of those years, heard brought up, and that surprises me a great deal. I’m sure if I looked around a bit, I could find it being discussed somewhere, and perhaps I will later, because I would love to hear what Young Earth Creationists would say about this one.

Okay, so Young Earth Creationists (hereafter referred to as “YECs”) say the world was created about 6,000 years ago. They have a specific date, but I don’t care quite enough to check it out. 6,000 is close enough for my purposes here. Now, let me paint a little picture of what, if they’re correct, a certain element of human history would have looked like:

In the beginning, there would have been not one single star visible in the night-time sky, because even the nearest star to the Earth (aside from the sun, obviously) is about 4.37 light years away. This means that, some four years and four months after the creation of the Earth, a little speck of light would have appeared in the hithertofore nearly-empty night sky, as the first rays of light from our nearest cosmic neighbor finally reached us. Gradually, as time went by, one by one, more and more stars would have begun to appear, as the light from them, travelling at a known and constant speed, arrived on Earth.

Throughout history, astronomers should have been reporting more and more new stars appearing in previously-empty spots in the sky, the heavens seeming to populate themselves more and more densely with each passing day. But this is not the case: the star charts of astronomers from thousands of years ago are remarkably consistent with what we can see today, and there exists no record of a gradually-decreasing black void in the sky.

Today, with our marvelous telescopes, we should be able to see the light of stars which are 6,000 light-years away burst into existence in real time. Indeed, since the bible teaches us that Yahweh created all of the stars in a single day, we should be seeing a black shell of nothingness all around us, some 6,000 light years in radius, gradually retreating at a rate of one light second per second. If we did see that, it would be pretty much impossible to make a serious argument that the universe were more than 6,000 years old, or that it wasn’t all created in one day. The evidence would be conclusive and irrefutable.

But of course, that’s not what we see, is it? What we see is the light from stars which are more than 6,000 light years away. Much more. Thousands of times more. Millions of times more. This should not be possible if YECs are correct. Indeed, if they were correct, to be able to see light shining from stars which are more than 6,000 light years away, that light would literally need to have been created, in-transit, between the stars which supposedly emitted them and the Earth.

Think about what that would mean: As we watch what we think is a star located more than 6,000 years ago, what we’re actually watching is an elbourate illusion created by Yahweh, of a history which never took place, of an object which did not in fact exist at the time we think we’re seeing it. We believe we’re seeing the story of a star which is, say, 7,000 light years away, but what we’re actually seeing is 1,000 years of bullshit and deception before the first ray of light from that star ever reaches us.

In fact, the christian god would not only have needed to spin this elabourate lie in order to beguile and deceive us into believing that the universe was more than 6,000 years old, he would have needed to create a consistent illusion, with rays of light carrying illusions and lies to us from every point in the heavens in such a way as to consistently indicate and provide evident support for a history which never took place.

It seems like a lot of trouble to go to just in order to dissuade us from believing in him. One would have thought that planting all of those false dinosaur fossils would have been sufficient, but I guess he’s a perfectionist when it comes to trying to prevent us from believing in his own inerrent word. It just seems like it’s desperately important to him that we don’t believe in him.

And of course, many YECs are really very preoccupied with finding evidence for their specific and literal interpretation for the bible. You can go to one of their hilariously Flintstones-esque “Creation Museums” and learn all about how the Grand Canyon scientifically proves that the story of Noah’s Flood is real and proven history. Physical evidence is extremely important to them, even if it needs to be massaged and twisted and distorted until it suits their specific purposes. So I wonder what they say about this matter of physical evidence...?

Part 2

Okay, so since writing part 1, I’ve spent several hours looking into this topic, and as I’ve surmised, there’s a lot written and discussed on this issue. A whole lot. Like, “hundreds of thousands of hits on Google” lots. I’m frankly kind of stunned that this has never once been on my radar, so to speak, but what the heck. Better late to the party than never to show up, right?

First off, it seems that, as I guessed, the “light created in-transit” idea was in fact in vogue for a while among YECs, until they realized that it did in fact seem to implicate their chosen deity as a kind of mischievous trickster-god. They didn’t care for this notion too much, and so discarded it as inconvenient to the point they were trying to make.

There followed a number of other ideas, which I won’t touch upon beyond saying that they eventually realized that the facts did not seem to support these notions, and so they too were discarded. Bully for them, I say, for having the wits and character to do so.

The current popular notion is a bit of a head-scratcher for me, and one I’m going to have to look into a bit more deeply when I have the time. Basically, as I understand it, the concept goes like this: The Earth is the centre of the entire universe (as befits its place as the cornerstone of their god’s creation), and therefore has around it a massive gravitational field, caused by a ginormous white hole spewing out all of the matter and energy which comprises the rest of the universe (but which is not visible to us and which has none of the “wiping out the solar system and all of its contents in a matter of seconds” sorts of effects that such an object would, one would expect, actually produce). From what I’m reading, it seems that white holes are not understood to actually have this sort of effect on gravity, but here I concede that I am simply over my head, physics-wise. At any rate, the effect of this, they claim, is that time is dilated in the neighborhood of our solar system, such as that, while the rest of the universe experiences the many billions of years which the evidence tells us that it has, LOCALLY, here on Earth, only 6,000 years have passed since the beginning of time.

Physics, as I’ve said, are not my strong suit, and astrophysics even less so, but I can’t help but think that this is the sort of thing that doesn’t really work. My first impulse is to ask if, if we assume this concept is correct, they’ve considered the idea that a super-dense gravitational field around our solar system would seem likely to cause all of the matter in our immediate vicinity to collapse into a black hole. My second impulse is to wonder if, if this is the case, whether or not they simply declare “god doesn’t want for that to happen, and so he waves his magical wand three times and causes it not to happen.” From what I’ve been able to discern, there seems to be a certain amount of deliberate hand-waving on this count, of the “this theory does not address this point in a meaningful way” variety.

My third impulse is to chuckle bemusedly. Because it seems to me that even the YECs have been forced to retreat in the face of the available evidence; they concede that, yes, the universe is billions of years old, there’s no more denying that. But we can still say that the Earth itself is only a few thousand years old, because – due to this relativistic effect – we’ve missed out on most of those billions of years, and indeed, it’s not even that the rest of the universe is billions of years old; it’s that it’s experienced billions of years of growth and change during the 6,000 years of “real time” which the Earth has experienced, which is the only time worth mentioning or counting. Which sounds like an amazingly semantic argument to me.

My fourth impulse is to laugh a little bit. Because it seems to me that they’re positing a god which has gone to an amazing amount of trouble to create a situation which SEEMS to have been a product of billions of years of natural development, and which SEEMS to disprove the story he ostensibly wants us all to believe, when simply plopping things down in such a way as to produce the “ever-expanding shell of visible stars” model I proposed above would have been just as easy, and would have, again, presented clear and irrefutable evidence of the veracity of his creation. But instead, he would have had to go out of his way to create a universe which seems to obscure and obfuscate this truth, as though attempting to mislead anyone who doesn’t make some massive and seemingly-unfounded leaps of faith in order to get to the “proper” conclusions. I laugh because a god which would do all of this still seems like the mischievous trickster-god which they rejected in the first place.

Honestly, the mental gymnastics these people put themselves through in order to never have to admit that they’re wrong is amazing. As a sort of mental exercise, it’s almost admirable in a Rube Goldbergian sort of way, but as an actual approach to life, the universe, and everything, it’s a little on the horrifying side.


I know a lot of nutjobs get worked up about Obama...

...but this guy has got to be the funniest of the batshit insane Obama haters.

EDIT! I managed to find a Youtube of the full video! Huzzah!

Apparently this guy - this Reverend Manning - has gone on on this topic at some very considerable length, over and over again, but this video seems to be kind of the summation and aggregation of all of his crazy on the topic. A longer, better-quality, and all-around more awesome version can be found here.

I swear, I just about lost it when he screams "LAURA KNOWS IT TOO!" (which, sadly, is cut from the embedded video above but can be seen on the longer one) It's such a random thing to toss in there, and with such mad vehemence! He's so plainly just tossing random shit out there, it's delicious. Similarly, I've been joking for a year now, as a caricature of Republicans, that they would refer to Obama as a "Godless Communist and radical Muslim", but until this fellow, I've never seen one of these nutjobs actually shout this out with perfect sincerity. The cognitive dissonance here is beautiful.

And then... and then the musical number at the end. Holy shit, my friends. Holy shit.



An argument for the moral repugnance of the christian god

I had a conversation recently on the topic of christian theism which has had the gears spinning in a fairly robust way in the days since. There’s a thought which occurred to me some years ago during a conversation with a christian acquaintance of mine which I think I’ve now refined into a fairly bulletproof argument against the moral character of the christian god. I’m going to try to summarize it as briefly, persuasively and effectively as I can, and I welcome any and all debate on the topic.


Alright, let’s assume for the sake of conversation that the christian god exists more-or-less as-described in the bible. He is, in this example, omnipotent and omniscient. I’m going to call him Yahweh for the remainder of this discussion for the sake of clarity and brevity. Let us further assume that hell is real, and is more-or-less as it is believed to exist by the majority of contemporary christians: A terrible place of eternal torment, and one which, in order to avoid it, one needs to be a christian and undergo certain practices and such (which vary widely from one denomination to another, and so we’ll leave that open within this dialogue).


Moreover, Yahweh is considered “good”, in a fairly conventional way; well-intentioned and benevolent. He is believed, by most christians, to basically want people not to go to hell, but allows them the freedom to choose their own choices in life, which can lead them wherever it will.


Now, assuming all of this, Yahweh knows me better than I know myself, and knows what sorts of situations I would need to be exposed to in order that I might be able to believe that he exists. Furthermore, given his unlimited power and knowledge, he knows a presumably infinite number of scenarios in which I would come to believe in him. Let us call this set of scenarios “Set A”. Any and all scenarios in which I would not ultimately come to believe in him, become a christian and thus avoid hell can therefore be called “Set B.”


Thus far, in my life, I have only been exposed to scenarios from Set B. A common christian line of thinking on this topic might produce the idea that I have in fact been exposed to many situations which MIGHT have convinced me, but I have thus far chosen not to be convinced (thus “free will”). I would argue, however, that given Yaweh’s precise and unwaveringly-correct knowledge, however, he would know that any such situation ultimately would not convince me, which places them firmly in Set B. Now, Yahweh, in this scenario, could at any point in my life up to this point, have exposed me to any of the scenarios in Set A. He has not done so, however, in that I have yet to be persuaded. He furthermore knows (again, with absolute certainty and clarity) that everything I’ve been exposed to thus far exists within Set B. He has not allowed any of the scenarios in Set A to have taken place, and taken no action to cause any of them to take place. Given this, it must be assumed that he either does not wish for me to believe in him, or is merely indifferent.


If I were to die tomorrow, never having been exposed to any of the scenarios in Set A, I would – by our earlier assumptions – go to hell and be punished forever for not believing and not becoming a christian (whatever that may entail). I would in short be subjected to eternal and inescapable torture for not having been exposed to any of the events in Set A.


An omniscient god would know that one of the events in Set A needs to take place in order for this to be avoided. If such a god decides that my lifetime should pass without any of the events in Set A to take place, he is deciding that I should go to hell, as surely as a man who sees a child wandering blindly into traffic and chooses not to stop that child is deciding that that child should die. Certainly, there is the matter of free will; allowing that child to make the uninformed decision which would lead to its own death, but where is the morality in deciding that not warning that child in a way it would understand and be able to act upon is the right thing to do? Where, more to the point, is the morality in deciding that I should go on to hell without receiving a warning in a way that I would find persuasive, when delivering that warning in a way that I would find persuasive is well within the knowledge and power of Yahweh?


Now, in this scenario, every individual person has their own personal Set A and Set B. I would make the case that in this scenario, moreover, every single person who has ever died without becoming a christian has gone their lives without any of the events in their own personal Set As taking place. In each of their cases, Yahweh knew what would persuade them and took no steps to allow any of those persuasive events to take place. To that extent, he decided that each and every one of them ought to go to hell, when he knew with absolute certainty and clarity what would have been required in order for that not to take place, and did not allow that thing to occur.


Returning for a moment to the topic of choice and free will: Even if we assume that belief is a matter of choice (which I am by no means convinced of), and that you can simply choose to believe one thing or another, this does nothing to alter this matter: An omniscient god would know in advance what I would choose in any given scenario (and never be mistaken or surprised by my choices), and thus, if there are certain situations in which I would choose to believe in him, these would still fall within Set A, and the rest, naturally, within set B. The matter of whether belief is a product of choice or not is irrelevant in this consideration, and thus the question of respecting free will and allowing people to make their own mistakes (which are also traits commonly ascribed to Yahweh) does not enter into it.


In short, Yahweh routinely decides that people ought to suffer eternally due to the fact that they have not been given access to the persuasive arguments necessary to convince them not to do so. They are made to suffer, to that extent, for the misdeeds, shortcomings and failures of those around them, including, principally, Yahweh himself.


If this is the case, then to what extent can Yahweh be considered “good”, and to what extent can the sentence of eternal damnation for those who simply do not believe in him be considered just?


I argue that there is no extent to which either can be considered true. Such a god, if he existed, would be cruel, capricious, selfish and malign, seemingly arbitrarily deciding for people whether or not they ought to suffer for events beyond their own control, but well within his own. And I would furthermore argue that such a god would be unworthy or praise, adulation or worship.


Naturally, I do not argue that such a god exists, or has any of the traits described here, but that if a christian theist believes their god has the traits described above, then the conclusion that he is anything but morally repugnant is impossible to draw from those assumptions.


I met a mormon!

So the other day, I had my first encounter with a Mormon. Mormons are pretty rare here in BC, and for most British Columbians, our main exposure to them is reading about that Mormon splinter group that lives up in the mountains and still practices polygamy, and so I’ve sort of wanted to have a chance to play with one of them for some time now. Predictably enough, it didn't go so well for him.

Collapse )Edit: I also posted this in the atheism community, where there's some decent discussion in the comments worth checking out:  http://community.livejournal.com/atheism/2043912.html

"Does god exist"; sometimes the answer can be sillier than the question.

Many years ago, my friend Paul and I attended a debate at the University of Guelph entitled "Does God Exist?" There were two fellows there, both of whom purportedly arguing in favour of a scientific worldview. One of them, however, was - perhaps unsurprisingly - being a trifle more thorough about it than the other. I can't remember their names, but for the purposes of this anecdote, their names aren't terribly important. What's important is that they were spokespeople for two fairly well-represented approaches to this question.

There was the one fellow arguing essentially for an evidence-based approach to learning, and for what any reasonable person might call "actual science". The other fellow, who was taking the "pro-god exists" position at that debate, built his argument around what is called the "first cause" or "prime mover" argument. In the briefest of terms, this argument goes something like this: Everything we can perceive in the universe has a cause, and usually one we can in some way understand or theorize about. We can go back further and further back in the history of the universe and find one thing before another before another, each causing the thing after it in a giant chain of causality. At the beginning of this chain, he argued, there must be an "un-caused cause"; something that caused the next series of things, but which required no cause for itself. This cause, he furthermore argued (and here we get to the insultingly ridiculous anthropic principle), did such a jim-dandy job of setting up this string of causes in such a way as to eventually cause human beings to exist that it must have been an amazing super-intellect which had human beings in mind as an end result of his act of creation. So we might as well call this entity "god", and therefore conclude that he exists. He went on in much greater detail, of course, but I don't feel the need to expand upon it too much; you should easily enough be able to find any number of other Christians out there parroting the same material.

And I use the word christian advisedly here: The man was a christian, and intended for the audience to be convinced that his christian god was real and thus subscribe to his bronze age mythology. If we had all walked out of that lecture hall and become Muslims or Hindus, or started a hundred different and distinct religions, each of which were confusingly named "The Church of the First Cause" (which, come to think of it, actually isn't a bad-sounding name), I doubt very much that he would have been very happy with the outcome of having convinced us simply of the existence of this "first cause"; he had a specific identity and personality in mind for this entity which his hypothesis didn't seem to contain support for.

This is an obviously vacuous hypothesis for a number of reasons. I was ten years old when I first asked "Oh yeah? Well then who created god?", and to this day, I've never heard a christian (or any other theist) provide an explanation for their pet deity's existence which wasn't laughable and which was supported by their own mythology. This fellow - the debater above - took the stance that his god required no cause, no reason to exist, and that was that. It seems to me that this falls apart for a couple of different reasons.

The first, which occurred to me several years ago, is that even if he were entirely correct and that there WERE a divine "first cause", there's no reason to expect it to be the christian god he plainly meant to convince us to worship. And I don't even necessarily mean "What if it were Odin or Zeus or whatever" (and yes, I acknowledge that neither was a creator god in their own mythologies, but bear with me here). I mean, even if we entertain his idea that there IS a christian god, that he is essentially as-described in the bible, and that he created our universe, this does nothing at all to support the idea that such an entity might be his "prime mover". What if this god exists, but was caused by some super-god in some higher plane, and whom the christian god is nothing but a helpless insect before the presence of? What if that super-god was himself created by some super-duper god on some higher plane than that? What if this goes back another sixteen or sixty levels further back than the first link in that chain of causes he posited, and the true first cause is actually just some primordial chaos with no intellect or will or what-have-you, and which caused a situation in which his god came into existence by means of what we might teasingly call a naturalistic process?

I'm not saying this is true, or that we have any reason to believe it. I'm saying that the hypothetical structure he's provided gives us at least as much reason to believe this crazy bullshit hypothesis as the crazy bullshit hypothesis he actually wants us to embrace, and thus his argument does nothing whatsoever to accomplish underlying his goals, if you give it the scrutiny it deserves.

But there's an even bigger problem than that, and one which occurred to me quite a bit more recently: If we accept his idea that we live in a universe where things - even very complicated and unlikely things like the spontaneous generation of a hyper-intelligent and immortal substance-less intellect such as his "first cause" - then what does that tell us about the sort of universe in which we live? It tells us, among other things, that we live in a crazy, arbitrary universe where things CAN happen without cause or reason, and that as such, there's no reason to believe that any GIVEN phenomenon needs to be traced back to some primordial prime mover. Why do human beings exist? No reason. Just because. Why does gravity exist? No reason. Just because. Why does god exist? No reason. Just because. Again, if we accept his premise, that we live in a universe which plays home to these sort of random and arbitrary events, why do we suppose that there is a SINGLE first cause? There could be dozens, hundreds, an INFINITY of "first causes", each of which came into existence for no reason whatsoever, and the first first cause to have come into existence for no reason whatsoever could have little or no impact upon the universe at all as it presently exists, having long ago been marginalized by all of the subsequent "first causes".

Indeed, even if we grant his hypothesis the boon of the little bit more rope which it needs to hang itself and say that this first first cause is - as he believes - this christian god of his, then who's to say that in a universe where things can happen without any cause or reason, this god might not have at some point ceased to exist or had its nature changed or somesuch... again, for no reason, and without any cause? What if this god DID exist and was at one point immortal, omnipotent and omniscient and all that, but at some point, for no reason and with no cause, he suddenly became a drooling, mindless, and somewhat spiteful invalid?

Again, I'm not saying this is true, or that we have any reason to believe it. What I am saying is that - again - the hypothetical framework he set up seems to allow for this sort of event, and that if so, there's no way we can take anything he - or anyone else - says very seriously.

"And so you see, this is how you get yourself into heaven."
"Oh, yeah? When did we first hear about that?"
"Two thousand years ago!"
"Well, how do we know it hasn't changed since then?"
"Why would it have changed?"
"No reason. Just because."

It's self-defeating reasoning; a hypothesis which by its very nature cannot prove anything, since its core premise prevents anything from being explained by its very nature. The very definition of a self-defeating argument.

Oh, how I wish I could travel back in time to that day so I could have asked this question to him during the question period at the end of the debate. I expect I would have destroyed him on the spot, causing him to bodily disappear in a puff of logic.


Working for the church, motherfuckers.

So, remember a little over a month ago, I was talkng about going back to voulenteering at a homeless shelter up in Vancouver on Thursday nights? Well, it has for the most part been going swimmingly, though it has not been entirely without some small bumps.

Before my first appearance there some five weeks back, I had spoken to the fellow in charge of the operation; a young man named Jordan, and had identified myself to him as "Dave, the atheist fellow who voulenteered there a few years back. Carl, who was running the show back then will remember me." So, while I had no interest in making an issue of my atheism or beating anyone over their heads with it, it was nevertheless out there so far as Jordan was concerned.

The first night went very well, and at the end of the evening as I was gathering up my gear from the church office where it had been locked up for safe-keeping, Jordan and I had a brief conversation on the topic.

Jordan: "Well, thanks for coming out. You're a really hard worker!" 
Me: "Well, you know, I came here to work. What's the point in coming out if I'm not going to give it my all, right?"
Jordan: "Well, thanks. We really appreciate it."
Me: "I know you and I come at this from really different places, but the end result is the same. For my own part, I figure we're all alone in this great big universe, and nobody's going to help us but each other, and since we've only got this one shot at it, we owe it to ourselves and each other to make it as good as we can for all of us, you know?"
Jordan: "Well, bless you."

And that moment was so perfectly, perfectly absurd, in light of what I had just said, I could not contain a full-throated gale of laughter from erupting from my mouth right there in the church, nor indeed could I stop laughing until well after I had made my way out of the building and onto the street.

The next week, my friend Ray came along with me (as indeed he has each of the subsequent weeks), and I had told him about this exchange from the week before. At the end of the night, we were on our way out, when: 

Jordan: "Bless you both, guys."
Me: "Now, cut that out!"
Ray: "Not that we don't appreciate the thought..."
Me: "...the underlying sentiment, if you will..."
Ray: "...but save it for someone who needs it..."
Me: "...or indeed, someone for whom it would be in any way meaningful."

That seems to have broken him of this habit, as it has not recurred in subsequent visits.

Nova - The Bible's Buried Secrets

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a fantastic documentary from Nova called "The Bible's Buried Secrets". As people who know me are well aware, this sort of thing is like crack to me. It essentially looks at the very early history of the Israelite people by means of a combination of approaches and creating a synthesis which is very compelling to me. They seek to disentangle the actual history of these people from the various strands of mythology which you find in the bible. And it does treat this book as mythology, and moreover, a sort of Frankensteineian hodge-podge of four DIFFERENT mythological traditions which were spliced, over the course of centuries, into the early books of the Torah (or "Old Testament" as the Christians somewhat condescendingly call it). It doesn't do so in an unfriendly or hostile way at all; it approaches the early history of this people as an engaging historical saga which has been obscured and confused by a series of myths which nevertheless served various useful purposes to the culture of this struggling people. It goes into a number of different corroborating sources for different elements of the story being told, many drawn from archaeological digs performed in the area over the last sixty years or so, mainly by Israeli archaeologists who have a vested interest in discerning the truth of their own early history.

I've shown this film to a number of friends, who have all enjoyed it tremendously, and I suspect many of you will as well. I know I fully plan on buying the DVD when it becomes available for sale in February.

For the time being, the entire thing can be viewed for free by Americans at Nova's page for the film here: http://www.pbs.org/nova/bible

For those outside of the US, there are a number of opportunities. For example, some helpful soul has broken it up into 12 parts and posted them on YouTube, the first of which I post here: 

If that's not to your tastes (as Youtube video quality can be a little on the weak side), there's always the torrent option : http://www.mininova.org/tor/2030190


Charity work in Vancouver - any fellow atheists interested?

Hey, all. Or, more particularly, all in and around Vancouver (of which I know there are a few).

A few years ago, I got roped into voulenteering at a homeless shelter up in Vancouver; a program called "Out of the Cold." It was run out of the Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, and this was, for certain (and I think obvious) reasons a little uncomfortable in that sense. Still, I had friends I was voulenteering with, and this made the experience survivable at first. Not only did I have people I was comfortable with, but I feel like there was a certain "Safety in numbers" deal going on, which kept the christians from proselytizing to me.

As time went on, and weeks turned into months, the christians there, I think, came to accept me and warmed up to me. I was a hard worker, I was polite, and I was doing good work. And you know, it was a good experience for me. Really good. I felt like I was living up to my moral standards in a very tangible way.

I always say, "We all have this one life, this one chance, this one world, and afterwards, nothing. It's up to us, and only us, to make sure it's as good experience for all of us as we can. We're all in this thing together." Having the chance to really put that philosophy to action was an enormously satisfying experience.

The next winter, though, when the program started up again, I was working thursday nights. And the next. And the next. And so on. I kept wanting to get back to it, but I never quite found the time.

These last few days, as I'm sure it's escaped nobody's notice, have been terribly, bitterly cold. It put me in mind of that program, and I realized "Hey, I have thursday nights free". I did some checking, and it seems the program is still going. Even better, the guy who was running it at the time I was there - a fellow named Karl - is still around. Karl, more than anyone there, I remember fondly. As the winter program was coming to an end that year, I remember him giving me a card (and I wish I could find it now! I'm sure I didn't throw it away!), telling me about how I had changed his mind about atheists, and showed him it's possible to be moral for entirely altruistic reasons, without any desire or need to get into heaven. It touched me rather deeply.

So, I'm going back there. This thursday, most likely, and I expect on subsequent thursdays as well. This having been said... I find that I would prefer to go there along with a kindred spirit or two, for the same reasons as I enumerated above. I don't know if any of you folks have thursday late afternoon/early evening free, but if you do, I would be glad of the company. Besides which, it's a worthy cause and the feeling of genuine satisfaction which springs from that is one which you would do well not to deny yourselves.

One way or the other, I'll be there. Perhaps I'll have a story or two to share when I get back.


On the topic of black christians in America

This is a topic I've struggled with for a while now, and I wanted to both share my musings on it and ask for any insights anyone (and most especially anyone who might have been a black christian in America) for their insights on.

I've always had a problem with the enthusiasm of christians of colour, if you will, in the United States. And not merely the same problems that I have with christians of other races down there, though those certainly apply as well. No, my problem is one of a certain logical disconnect. One stemming from their point of origin, one might say. And here I refer primarily to those who are descended from slaves; though I'm quite aware that there are many black christians down in the states who either immigrated on their own or whose ancestors did, my quandary with them is a different one.

When I think about those blacks descended from slaves and who are now vigorous and impassioned christians, it outrages my sensibilities a little bit when I think about how christianity was introduced to their people. Their ancestors, who were kidnapped, tortured, and pressed into invoulentary service (or, if you will, "enslaved") by white christians were brought to the United States, and there told that they were to abandon their old cultural and religious beliefs and embrace those of their captors. I imagine myself in this situation, and I imagine myself saying "Yes, of course. You people who kidnap us, torture us, enslave us, rape us and murder us plainly have a pretty good handle on this 'morality' thing. Your god, who apparently condones and dictates the terms by which we're stripped of our humanity and treated as less than beasts is obviously a fine dispenser of virtue and morality. You guys totally deserve to be emulated, and your god is obviously the one we should be looking to for ethical behaviour. Oh, wait, no. You and your entire culture sicken me, your god, if indeed he exists is plainly a monster unworthy of my attention or adulation if he permits this behaviour among his followers, and your religion makes me sick to my stomach."

And then, I suppose I would be publicly and horribly murdered by these followers of christ for failing to see the innate goodness and superiority of their moral creed, so as to make an example to anyone else who got the idea in their heads that American christians are anything less than paragons of love, mercy, and virtue.

And I suppose it's insufferably smug of me to try to project myself into this situation; I've had terrible times in my life that nearly broke and ruined me, and the very worst days I had during these days can't possibly compare with the very best days that these slaves must have had, especially in those early days before they had "settled in" to their nightmarish new lives. How can I presume to know how I would react in that sort of situation, much less judge those who were there? But even so...

I wonder if part of it is that the most dissenting and proud among them were killed off, leaving only the most meek and compliant. I wonder if there was a certain horrible natural selection going on here, where the only ones who survived long enough to breed were the ones who had the good sense or lack of pride necessary to hang their heads and obediently repeat the empty platitudes required of them until their own children were old enough to never have lived in a time when they remembered any other religious views being observed? 

I've heard tales of groups of black slaves in that time and place who cunningly disguised their own cultural beliefs by pretending they were worshiping christian saints and angels when instead they were continuing to revere their old tribal gods and spirits. While I have no less contempt for such practices than I do for christianity as a whole, in that day and age, one must have seemed as plausible as the other, and I admit to a certain admiration for their guile and nerve in pulling off such a ruse on their credulous "masters" until such a time as they were able to once again become the masters of their own destiny. It is in this way that practices like Voodoo (or vodun, if you prefer) first came into existence.

But today, in this day and age, in an age of rationality and readily-available science and historical perspective, the continued enthusiasm of black American christians offends my sensibilities. I realize that these are people who were raised in this faith. I realize that the church has long served as a centre of community from which they have drawn strength of unity as a peoples in very hard times. But even so... The very fact that this religion was pushed upon their people by the monstrous and savage culture of the southern United States, and is in a very real and ongoing sense a yoke around their collective cultural neck which was placed there by their oppressors, and which they don't seem to have the strength of character to cast off just kind of baffles me. For a people so demonstrably eager to be free in so many other ways, how can they be so eager to maintain their servitude and servility to the white man's god? 

Even the emergence of groups like the so-called Nation of Islam, which seem to exist purely as a reaction against this history only partially address this historical inequity, in that they simply move their bondage to the irrational from one source to another. And these people remain a vanishingly small minority among the population. Upon consideration (and here I know I tread on very delicate ground indeed), I wonder if the poverty and poor educational opportunities which are all-too-often afforded them as a people is in part to blame for this? Both poverty and poor education have a statistical correlation with religiosity, and all three are well-represented within the American black population.

I don't claim any special insight or personal experience here, but I would like to learn more. Is anyone in a position to shed some further light on the matter? 

cross-posted to the atheism community
Edited to add: The discussion in the above-linked community is actually really good and heated in places. Worth checking out if you're interested in this post.