Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Armageddon: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Will the biblical prophecy of Armageddon become self-fulfilling? It's a frighteningly real possibility.

Consider this little story, about Mr. John Brandrick of Cornwall, UK, who was told he had just six months to live. Quite sensibly, Mr Brandrick quit his job, sold everything he owned, visited his children, and spent all of his money enjoying life to the fullest. Until, that is, he discovered that the doctors had made a mistake, he was actually quite healthy, just a bit of pancreatitis.

We can chuckle at poor Mr. Brandrick's dilemma – he's happy to be alive, but financially ruined and without a job – but there are MILLIONS of Christians in America today, and many millions worldwide, who are in the exact same boat as Mr. Brandrick. They already believe the End of Times is at hand, and will arrive in their lifetimes. They'll all be taken into the sky, leaving behind all of the mistakes and disasters they've caused.

One of the most frightening examples of real people who are trashing the Earth because of Christianity was James Watt, Secretary of the Interior during Ronald Regan's presidency. Because of his Christian beliefs, Watt was a vigorous opponent of environmentalism, and vastly expanded oil drilling, logging, and mining. He believed that natural resources were put here by God for humans to use, and that it was wrong not to exploit God's gift to the fullest. He famously told Congress, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns," and an unverified source quotes Watt saying, "After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back."

How can a nation, or a world, possibly make rational decisions when a substantial fraction of its people believe that there is no future?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Shotguns and Suicide Bombs: Is Life Really so Cheap to the Faithful?

Every Atheist blogger will be writing about this tragic story today, about a man who opened fire with a shotgun in a Unitarian Church because he was frustrated over their "liberal views." And on the same day, we find that four women, in a coordinated suicide bombing, blew themselves up in Iraq, killing at least fifty seven innocent bystanders, all Shiite pilgrims.

Most religious people have swallowed the Godly Origin of Morals Meme, hook, line and sinker. They believe that without God, there can be no morality. Never mind that actual facts don't back this up – sociologist, historians, religious scholars and atheist scholars have done plenty of studies that demonstrate that people are people, and pretty much behave just as well or badly regardless of their religion.

Unfortunately, there is a corollary to the Godly-Origin-of-Morals Meme: Not only do morals come from God, but so too does the very meaning and purpose of our lives. Without God's plan for us, there would be no reason to exist. Or so we're told. To an atheist, this idea is almost laughable, except that it's not funny today. Dozens of people died today, as a direct result of this belief.

To a religious person, life is just the very first step in an infinitely long journey, and death is the doorway to the next step. Death is unpleasant, leaves grieving loved ones behind, and perhaps leaves unfinished business on Earth, but the promise of the afterlife, heaven, and reunion with loved ones when they die, vastly mitigate the pain and sorrow of believers. In God's grand scheme of things, death is more of an inconvenience than a tragedy.

Contrast this with the Atheist's view of life and death. There is no greater gift than life, because you only get one chance, and there is no fate worse than death, because when you're dead, that's it, you are gone forever. Our lives here on Earth last a mere six to ten decades if we're lucky. There is nothing more precious than life, and our husbands, wives and children are worth more to us than anything else in the world. It is only through our children, and our deeds here on Earth, than we can have any legacy to Earth's future.

A religious person can convince himself that murder is justified, because first, the victims aren't following the morals that God explained so plainly in the Bible. (Never mind that this "plain" explanation seems to be different for every person you ask.) But worse, because death is just the doorway to the afterlife, the religious zealot can convince himself or herself that the murders aren't really hurting anyone. If the victims are innocent, but the murder helps restore God's morals to society, then the murders are really OK. It's a case of the greatest good for the greatest number – a few lose their lives (an inconvenience, nothing more), but God's laws are restored.

This sort of logic is unthinkable to an Atheist.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Murdered Teacher Shows that Only Secular Governments can Protect Citizens

Ironically, today's blog about a murderous Muslim mob was inspired by some of the whacky atheist and agnostic nutjob rants I've been reading since becoming an active blogger.

There are religious extremists in every country, but laws in America, Europe, and most countries with secular governments keep these rants from turning to action (most of the time, anyway). Not so in countries controlled by religion.

I ran into this sad story, about a seventh grade teacher in India who was murdered yesterday. Muslim Youth League activists attacked James Augustine, a primary school headmaster in Malappuram. Augustine collapsed at the site and died while being taken to the hospital.

What did James Augustine do to deserve this Muslim death penalty? He taught from the government-approved social studies textbook. The book includes a story about a boy whose mother is Hindu and father is Muslim, and the boy doesn't want to declare himself to be either one when enrolling in a new school. The title, Life Without Religion, does not have anything to do with atheism, but rather is meant to illustrate tolerance, and to show that people of different faiths can get along and even marry and have children. Augustine died for teaching this.

People everywhere can be nasty, and put the worst spin on the most trivial things. I've been reading some atheist/agnostic blogs and newsgroups, and find just a few gems hidden in a huge pile of hay (most of which has been run through the horse). Unfortunately, the extremists are also the most prolific writers. And when I started digging into James Augustine's murder, I discovered that in India, the same thing is true. For example, check out this blog:
My conclusion is this - The textbook clearly requires a thorough review and correction. In its current form it requires only slight changes before it can be made into a "communist party manifesto"!.

These comments, and his readers' replies, are remarkably parallel to the atheist/agnostic blogs and bboards I've been reading: A few are serious, thoughtful writers, a bunch of people write but don't have much to say, and a few extremists sound kind of scary. But here in America, where freedom of religion has taken a few dents but is still pretty strong, these extremists' opinions stay just that: opinions.

Not so in places controlled by a religious majority. There, the online mobs turn into real mobs, and they murder real people, in this case a headmaster whose only crime was to follow the law, and teach religious tolerance and respect.

I'll take a secular government any day.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

I'm an Athiest, So Help Me God

America's Courts have a fundamental flaw that virtually guarantees bias against Atheists.

Not long ago, I was swindled by a thief who was selling stuff and not delivering. My wife is quite the internet sleuth, and managed to track the guy down, and we hauled his ass into Small Claims Court.

When you get to the courtroom, the first thing the bailiff does is to ask all the parties to sit down and see if they can reach an agreement without the judge. A lot of times people know they're in the wrong and will settle rather than face the judge. In our case, it was instantly apparent that our opponent was a total snake, one of those guys who lies even when there's no reason to. He said things to me that he knew were false, and I knew were false, and that he knew that I knew were false! And he did it with a straight face.

The worst-case scenario for a judge is when there is no concrete evidence – no contract, no receipt, no emails, just a handshake, and the two parties with the opposite version of what that handshake meant. Plainly one or the other is lying, but which one? The judge has to simply guess, based on intuition, reputation, looks, and whether one of the parties' story has the "ring of truth." I didn't envy the judge.

As I watched the judge settle a couple of cases, my hopes rose. He was pretty good. He found sensible compromises, he spotted holes on peoples' stories, and he seemed to have a good sense of fairness and justice. But when my turn came, I suddenly realized I had a big problem.

The bailiff called our case. We walked forward, and the judge said, "Raise your right hands. Do you swear that the evidence you are going to present this Court is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?" I was like a deer caught in the headlights. In an instant, a hundred stories and statistics were spinning through my head. Atheists are America's least-trusted group according to many surveys. Atheists don't deserve the rights of citizenship according to President Bush (the elder). Separation of Church and State was invented by the Devil according to Rev. Jerry Falwell and his flock.

Unfortunately, I have this flaw that may kill me some day: I'm honest. "Your honor, I'm an Atheist." This pretty much stopped everything. The Court's clerk, who had been chatting quietly with the bailiff, stopped mid-sentence and looked up. Various other plaintiffs and defendants, who had been reading, whispering amongst themselves, or dozing, were suddenly paying attention. Even the judge's normal composed, scholarly demeanor was momentarily lost.

The defendant, my lying opponent, quickly jumped in, and in a very loud voice, said, "I swear, so help me God." The Judge regained his composure, and turned to me. "Do you swear that the evidence you are going to present this Court is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?" And he sort of stopped with an awkward pause, the sentence seemingly incomplete. I could only fill in the silence with a firm, "I do."

I lost the case. The liar lied to the judge, and I told the truth, and the liar got away with my money. Was it because I'm an Atheist? I'll never know. I believe that the Judge, a man who has dedicated his life to the study of law, and to the principles of fairness and justice, was able to put aside his prejudices. I believe that his decision was wrong simply because my opponent was such a good liar. But ... sometimes I wonder.

And I also wonder why, over two hundred years after this country established a wall of separation between church and state, a citizen who happens to be an atheist has to be "outed," to declare his/her religious beliefs, before being heard by the Court.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Atheists: Learn from the Pope!

We atheists are pretty smug about how smart we are, but today we should take a lesson from the Pope and the Catholic Church. According to this article,
Pope Benedict XVI on Friday urged religious leaders of all kinds to unite against those who use faith to divide communities ... Benedict met with representatives of Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist faiths ... yada, yada, yada...
What's wrong with this picture? Did anything jump out at you? Of course not, and that's the lesson we need to learn from the Pope. Let's rewrite this story, but still stick to the facts:
At a meeting in Italy today, Imam Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem urged Christians to overcome their stereotypes of Muslims. Imam Saleem told representatives of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Bhddhist faiths that, "Christian groups and other religions must overcome their prejudice to Muslims and Islam."
Why does the Pope always get top billing?

Modern religions have had 10,000 years to evolve to their current state, and it's been a fierce battle for survival of the fittest. Only the very best strategies (memeplexes) for survival are with us today, and they are very good indeed. One of the most important features that arose from this evolutionary battle of church memes was a government-like hierarchy – churches that had a strong, central governing body were much more successful. They were able to integrating with (or become) governments, to fund proselytizing, to collect vast sums of money, and perhaps most importantly, they had a revered figurehead who personified the religion and gave its adherents a warm, fatherly figure.

It almost goes without saying that the Roman Catholic Church is at the apex of evolutionary development in this regard. When religious leaders meet, it is almost always the Pope who is named first in news articles, even when he travels to the other leaders' countries. The Pope is the uber-celebrity. I'll bet most of you can't even name three other major religious leaders. You'll start with His Holiness the 14th Dalia Lama, and then ... well ... Pat Robertson?

We Atheists have a double problem. First, we don't have an uber-celebrity like the Pope. Occasionally we'll have a respected advocate like Carl Sagan, or more recently Richard Dawkins, both of whom were/are knowledgable and articulate. But they just don't hold a candle to the Pope's celebrity.

Second, we're severely handicapped by our free-thinking, inquisitive nature. Most religious people are, by definition, willing to accept ideas on faith alone, without questioning it. It's easy for them to accept that the Pope is the top dude. By contrast, suppose someone told you today, "We've appointed Richard Dawkins as head of the Atheist Church, and his word is gospel." As much as we all respect the good professor, such an announcement would be greeted with hoots of laughter.

We're like a giant, unorganized mob trying to battle a highly-disciplined army with a seasoned general and battle-tested lieutenants.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Atheists? Not in OUR Army!

The United States Army accepted Blacks, Jews, Muslims, women, and even gays, but apparently being an Atheist isn't allowed. Army Spc. Jeremy Hall's unblemished service record, his two tours of duty in Iraq, and his unquestioned patriotism meant nothing. So severe was the discrimination and harassment against Hall, who became an Atheist while serving in Iraq, that the Army had to assign a full-time bodyguard to protect Hall from his fellow soldiers!

The Intolerance Meme is one of the tricks that religion evolved to further its goals. (What's a meme?) The concept, which arose a few hundred years after Moses, and justified in great detail in Deuteronomy, says that not only is your religion right, but that all other religions are wrong, and furthermore, that because they violate God's commandments, you can persecute, torture or even kill those who don't share your particular brand of religion. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 7)

It would be nice to think that Hall's experience is the exception, that most of the US Army's soldiers who believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Allah/God have a more modern, tolerant attitude toward their fellow humans. Especially when that fellow soldier has proved his patriotism and courage by deed, not just by talk. But sadly, such is not the case. The Intolerance Meme is still alive and well, and is still an integral part of Christianity in America and our military. The persecution against Hall was so severe and pervasive that the Army had to send him home for his own protection. Instead of fighting in Iraq, he had to serve out his tour of duty in Kansas.

These intolerant soldiers should should be forced, each and every one, to read the words of the main author of the United States Constitution:
I never told my religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert nor wished to change another's creed. I have judged of others' religion by their lives, for it is from our lives and not from our words that our religion must be read. By the same test must the world judge me.
– Thomas Jefferson

Women Priests: Meme Evolution in Action

One of the often-heard "proofs" that Darwin was wrong comes from creationists who say, "Where are the evolving species?" They assert that at any point in history, there should be transitional forms, species with partially-evolved traits, and claim that there are no such species around today. DNA evolution is glacially slow, and creationists think the universe is only 6,000 years old, so perhaps we can forgive them for this stunningly boneheaded belief.

But memes, the evolution of culture and ideas, evolve much faster -- we can easily see ideas changing and competing over mere decades, or even years or months. Today we have a perfect example.

The Church of England is finally allowing women to become bishops. This has caused great consternation among the more "conservative" members of the COE, and some have threatened to split the COE in two over this. The Vatican, of course, condemned the COE's recognition of women's rights, calling it a "further obstacle to reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England."

To a student of memetics, this is an incredible example of evolution in action. We have two competing memeplexes, one that says God doesn't want women as his representative here on Earth, and the other that says women are equal to men in God's eyes. These two species have to compete in the meme-ecosphere. Which one will survive?

Roughly a century ago, a new memeplex arose that says women are and should be equal to men. It started with womens' suffrage, but quickly moved into other arenas, such as family law (the right to divorce), equality in the workplace, and clothing styles (remember the scandal of the bikini?). In 1972, "Title IX" finally gave girls equal status with boys in school athletics. It didn't take long for the equality-of-women memeplex to butt heads with Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

This is a perfect example of "transitional species" in a meme ecosphere. There are various competing ideas, and they're in a stiff competition. The "no-women priest" memeplex is facing the equivalent of an ice age: The weather has changed, and the ecosphere (our brains) that it once found quite comfortable is now downright chilly. It's memetic evolution in action, and the churches that make the right choice are the ones that will survive.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sexy Mormon Men? LDS Leaders Hot Under the Collar

Here is an amusing but sad story. Apparently Mormon men can't be depicted as handsome, sexy guys, even in relatively modest attire.

According to the Associated Press, Chris Hardy was summoned to a church disciplinary hearing because of his "conduct unbecoming of a member of the church." His crime? He asked a dozen of the LDS church's brightest and best, young men returning from their missions overseas, to pose for a calendar. The pictures are quite nice, of young men in their prime, shirtless but not indecent at all. It's hard to imagine how anybody could object to these tasteful pictures. Moreover, Hardy's goal was laudable: To portray Mormon missionaries as regular, attractive guys.

Religion and religious institutions such as the LDS are having trouble fighting against rational thought and the discoveries of modern science. When they object to trivial "infractions" like a tasteful male calendar, they just look silly. Instead of focusing on their main message, they become sitting ducks for jokes and ridicule. Why don't these elders just tape a "kick me" sign to their backs?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Intelligent Design Raises its Ugly Head in Louisiana

One of the key themes in The Religion Virus is that beliefs we learn in childhood, no matter how illogical or wrong, become entrenched in our brains. It is very hard for us to unlearn the fundamental beliefs that we learn as children. The chapter, Billy the Racist, which helps to illustrate this point, is the story of a man I met during the three years I lived in New Orleans. Although my time there was brief, I still have a special place in my heart for that wonderful, wild city, and all the friends I made while living there.

I was saddened, but not surprised, to read this morning that the Louisiana State Legislature has once again introduced religion, under the guise of "Intelligent Design," into their school curriculum. (The New Scientist has good coverage of this story.) In writing The Religion Virus, I got a very deep understanding of just why religious people are so determined to infect their children with the virus at an early age. Louisiana is, in many ways, more "third world" than many third-world countries, and the religious attitudes there are almost medieval.

So I can't say I was surprised that these same people have hijacked the legislature of State of Louisiana to help ensure that all the children get thoroughly infected with religion memes. Not surprised, but saddened. It seems like for every two steps forward, there's one step backward, and the Louisiana State Legislature took a big step backwards yesterday.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

RIP Sir John Templeton: A good man, but a fruitless quest

Today marks the passing of a great man, Sir John Templeton, founder of the Templeton Prize that gives an annual $1.4 million award to those who try to reconcile religion and science.

On the one hand, I have enormous respect for people like Sir John who encourage debate and enquiry. It is such a refreshing contrast to the more typical closed-mindedness of so many religions and religious leaders. Sir John should be an example to all religious people: Don't be afraid of knowledge!

On the other hand, I find it sad that Sir John set out on an impossible quest. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at the problem of reconciling God's existence with science. The two are simply incompatible. It would have been so much better if Sir John's prize money were directed at a truly useful problem, such as overpopulation, energy, medicine, or child abuse. These problems are real, and have real solutions. It's too bad the Templton Foundation doesn't reward those who contribute to genuine advances in human knowledge, who solve real problems that have real benefits.