Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oh, weep for the poor atheist....

Fundamentalists: believe 2+2 =5 because It Is Written. Somewhere. They have a lot of trouble on their tax returns.

“Moderate” believers: live their lives on the basis that 2+2=4. but go regularly to church to be told that 2+2 once made 5, or will one day make 5, or in a very real and spiritual sense should make 5.

“Moderate” atheists: know that 2+2 =4 but think it impolite to say so too loudly as people who think 2+2=5 might be offended.

“Militant” atheists: “Oh for pity’s sake. HERE. Two pebbles. Two more pebbles. FOUR pebbles. What is WRONG with you people?”

-From Planet Atheism

Apparently I am missing out.

So declared an old friend mine who, when she discovered this blog and recent declaration on this little corner of the web that I am an atheist, promptly had a little freak out.

The odd thing about it is, my being an atheist bothered her to an enormous degree. To the point where she spent the better part of two hours during the wee wee hours a few days back, trying to convince me I was leading a cold,miserable existence because I refuse to believe in the supernatural.

Although I have encountered this kind of reaction before, it was the most vitriolic I have received from a friend. Strangers, bible thumpers, angry Muslims, sure. But not from a friend.

It started with a simple enough question from her: "Why are you an atheist?"

My answer to her was the same as it is to anyone who asks that question:"Evidence." An atheist is, as I have noted on this blog before, simply someone who does not believe in things for which there is no evidence.

My own rejection of my former belief in Buddhist cosmology - that is the physical reality of reincarnation - is predicated entirely on the same reasons I don't believe in any god or gods. No evidence. And the fact is there isn't any evidence for god, gods, goblins, Thor, and other supernatural critters great and small. There isn't evidence of an immortal soul, or "soul-stuff" that gets physically reborn into another body life after life. There just isn't.

This answer, it became very clear, was profoundly disturbing to my friend. To the degree where she became, it seemed to me, rather angry. Let me explain. She attempted to say there are things I have "faith" in that I can cannot personally explain. Like the theory of gravity, she suggested. I have "faith" that gravity works, and the mathematical and theoretical underpinnings of the theory are beyond my intellectually capabilities to understand. So therefore, I just have "faith."

However, as believers are often wont to do, they apply the term "faith" too broadly. Faith in the religious sense means to believe without evidence.This is the message of Jesus when he clobbers Thomas for demanding evidence of the resurrection. Believe, don't think. Accept without evidence. This is blind faith, and in the context of religion there isn't any other kind.

Do I have this kind of faith in gravity? No.

For one thing, I had to take physics in school and learned to do some of the basic maths. I am the first to admit I am no Isaac Newton, and math is not my strongest suit. However, I understand the basic maths - my friend's little insult to my intelligence notwithstanding.

However, even if I had not taken physics at all, would I have to have religious faith in gravity? Not at all. And the reason is that one can trust in the specialized authority of the physicists who do the math and the theoretical work. This is the same kind of trust you would place in your doctor to find out what is making you ill.

For instance, I trust in Albert Einstein's work on relativity. I most certainly cannot do anything but the most elementary mathematics when it comes to do this, so I have to trust that the science is right. However, and indeed as advances in science are showing us, that trust is not and should not be absolute. Einstein might not have been 100 per cent right. So I have to trust in the scientists who find new conclusions and change our knowledge.

This is not blind faith. Because I do not hold any of these fields of science that lay outside my own education and skill as absolute. As any good rationalist will admit, our knowledge changes all the time. Blind faith, such as the faith in a god, is absolute and unquestioned.

Finally, even if one does not understand physics, you can always learn. One of the great joys in a life my friend regards as bereft of meaning, is to take the time to learn some bit of science I didn't know before. It does take effort and sometimes hurts my brain, but it is also wonderful to learn something new. As an educated woman, my friend had to concede this last point at least.

So she then said a very curious thing. Science, she said, cannot explain love.Well, a bag of tail and all that, of course it can, I said.

But she declared the "funny feeling in your stomach" when you see a child do something cute, or fall in love with someone, cannot be identified and explained by science. Well of course it can. Our emotions are products of our minds and can have the most staggering physiological effects. Stress can make us sick. Laughter can release chemicals in our brains that make us feel good. Love can make us both feel good, and awful. Our emotions and our bodies reaction to them do not come from the ether, but are the result of how our brains work.

Well then, she declared by fait, you cannot observe love - like a mother's love for a child, so you have to have faith in it. It is such a transcendent kind of love, it cannot be understood but through some of kind of blind, religious faith. Not all I said. First, once can observe how a mother behaves toward her children (and this is a common trait in many mammals by the way). That is a pretty good indication. And it is interesting to note that while many mammalian mothers, including humans, will fiercely protect the life of her child, it is not universal. Just read the headlines and you find cases of mothers killing their babies, often in fits of depression. Some women just don't have much of a maternal instinct at all, even after the child is born.So much for the transcendent "mother's love."

A mother's love for a child is a product of our brains, and there are very good evolutionary selective reasons for that emotion to be there. However, my friend then declared my life was cold and meaningless, and that I am missing out, if I accept that something love is the result of activity in our brains. Ridiculous.

Her statements implies that if love is a material product of our minds, then it is somehow not "real." When the opposite is true. Just because I understand where our emotions come from that does not make them "unreal" or make me any less captive to their impacts. I don't experience love or hate any less than anyone else does. I just don't give it a supernatural gloss.

Still she said, she has experienced the hand of god in her life. Fine, I said, how? When? How do you know it is real? I got no answer, but she was getting increasingly upset. She knows god is real, she said, that is enough. Fine, I said. I actually don't care. You are free to believe whatever you want to believe. But you cannot then turn around and tell me my life is devoid of meaning because I do not worship something you simply "know" to be true. It all came back to my original answer to her question - evidence. There isn't any evidence. What had happened was really I provided an answer she didn't like.

What was very curious about this entire exchange, and I have only provided a glimpse of it here, is that my atheism bothered her a great deal. That I am happy, and unbothered by it wasn't enough. More than once she repeated the phrase "but you are just missing out" because I don't believe. Maybe I am missing something because I won't believe blindly in a sky god for which there is zero evidence. But would much rather face reality for it is, than to believe in something that is not.

Then came what I usually hear from believers who are bothered, deeply, by the people who reject that which they profoundly believe in. I have long suspected, although I certainly have no evidence for this, so take it with a grain of salt, that believers need to have other people believe in what they do. Or at the very least, not reject it out of hand. I suppose this might be because if someone can reject it, then that opens the possibility that their belief in Jesus or Allah or reincarnation or whatever, might be wrong. And that is something they simply do not want to consider. I mean, my friend was not bothered when I accepted the whole Buddhist deal. By believing in karma and reincarnation, I believed in SOMETHING supernatural. Daniel Dennett calls this "believing in belief." Even if it was not the same supernatural vagaries she believed in, it was still something. And that was fine. Rejecting the supernatural on the basis of evidence was not fine.

Anyway, what came next was "Well, what do you believe then?" By which she meant, what religious thing do I believe in. And when the answer was "nothing", I got the empty life thing all over again.Yet an atheist's life is not empty. Rather than be guided by the often cruel and unjust morality of the bible, I turn to philosophy, to Spinoza,Decrates, Plato, Epicurius and even the Buddha (although I certainly do not believe anything supernatural about him, assuming he was real at all).

I have family, friends, and a career. I have no empty hole in my life because I do not believe. The meaning of my life is whatever I decide it to be. As Bertrand Russell said, in so far as we not at the whims of natural forces, the purpose of our lives is for us to decide. That is the responsibility and the challenge of being human.

I rather think there is something uplifting about accepting our lives as they are without belief in an invisible god who requires us to worship at its feet like groveling minions. Our life is the only one we get. There is nothing afterwards just as there was nothing before. That being the case, we have only one chance to try and make something of it. No mulligans. The choice to do something, to try and contribute something, is ours.

So to my friend should she be reading this, and to those who think atheists are "missing out", rest assured I do not suffer because of my disbelief. My life is full, busy, and as satisfying as anyone else's. Above all, I do not require blind faith for my life to be fulfilling and happy.

My disbelief bothers you, not me.

Blasmphey is not a crime. Rushdie's Knighthood?

Human beings understand themselves and shape their futures by arguing and challenging and questioning and saying the un-sayable, not by bowing the knee whether to gods or to men.

-Salman Rushdie

There is an ongoing scuttlebutt about the most routine of events over in England. The government there awarded one of its most famous writers, Salman Rushdie, a knighthood.

The reaction in some part of the world should have been anticipated I suppose. The boorish and unlettered masses in some Muslim countries - people who probably have never read a single line of Rushdie's work - again were whipped up into a frenzy by their religious and political leaders. Again, they took to their streets calling for the death of the author because he wrote a book.

Unless you live under a rock, you know which book I am talking about. The Satanic Verses, inspired by part of the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. In 1989 when the book was published, the then high Imam of Iran and general lunatic, the
Ayathollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, a religious order, that Rushdie be murdered. The book, said Khomeini, was blasphemous. And there is only one thing to do with an apostate like Rushdie.

Rushdie had to go into hiding and while he was never killed, one translator of his book was and two other survived assassination attempts.

In time, the effort to kill Rushdie for having the temerity of writing a book, died out. Although last year, amid surreal and hyper violent reactions in the Muslim world to Danish political cartoons some Muslims found blasphemous, the Iranian government issued a statement saying the death sentence for Rushdie still stands - fatwas as it turns out, cannot be withdrawn.

So it should come as no surprise when the protests erupted last month in some Muslim quarters, particularly in Pakistan, over Rushdie's knighthood. Apparently, those with influence in these countries have no conception of free speech, and claimed that knighting such a "hated apostate" was a direct attack on Islam and all Muslims worldwide.

We've come to expect this. People with little education, who have never read, and probably could not read, Rushdie's books are calling for his murder. But what was even more contemptible, was the reaction by some in the west. There were those who said the knighthood should not have been awarded because Muslims don't like the Satanic Verses. "We really ought not be doing or saying things that upset Muslims."

In other words, we should never say or do things that can be regarded by the faithful as blasphemous.

Well, the proper reaction to the storm of protests from believers who call for the murder of someone for writing a book should have been a short three words: "Too damn bad."

Saying that you cannot publish anything that someone might find blasphemous would essentially force free speech to bow to theology and that is simply not acceptable.

Some of the most important works of art, literature and science have been, and still are, considered blasphemous.

Should we ban Darwin because some Christians think his Origin of Species is an insult to the Almighty? Should The Last Temptation by Nikos Kazantzakis be pulled from bookshelves because it challenges conventional Christian belief?

Most would say no. Yet, because Muslims find political cartoons and fictional novels blasphemous the United Nations is under pressure to adopt a resolution abandoning a basic human freedom - free speech

Ironically, the calls for banning "blasphemous materials" are coming from the Middle East -- a region of the world which has, at best, only the most tenuous history with democratic freedoms. In nations like Iran, theology, not democracy, sets the rules.

That anyone in the west would argue that Rushdie should not be knighted so that the religious sensibilities of religious fanatics are protected is staggering. Those who make this argument should, I think, be ashamed of themselves for they reject one of the bedrock principles of a free society.

The fact is, freedom of expression means we have the right to blaspheme all we want. And it shouldn't be any other way.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Pope Strikes Back!

Two mighty powers (Lilliput and Blefuscu) have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate war for six-and-thirty moons past. It began upon the following occasion. It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty's grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers.

Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire.

It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden, and the whole party rendered incapable by law of holding employments. During the course of these troubles, the emperors of Blefusca did frequently expostulate by their ambassadors, accusing us of making a schism in religion, by offending against a fundamental doctrine of our great prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth chapter of the Blundecral (which is their Alcoran). This, however, is thought to be a mere strain upon the text; for the words are these: 'that all true believers break their eggs at the convenient end.

-Gulliver's Travels.

Jonathan Swift must be giggling in his grave. He saw it all coming.

There is a tale in his Gulliver's Travels, quote above in part, of two mighty nations at war over a grave doctrinal difference.

The doctrine in question? Which end of the boiled egg should be cracked open before you eat it. The Lilliputians crack their eggs on the little ends. As a result, they regard the Blefuscudians, who use the big end, as apostates.

The metaphor was Swift's jab at the 18th-century consubstantiation versus transubstantiation dispute between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. "Trivial" was how Swift characterized the conflict. Not unlike his fictional egg war.

It seems we haven't learned much from Swift. Certainly Pope Benedict hasn't. I can only imagine Swift would shake his head and chuckle at the Holy Father's latest volley fired across the bow of Protestantism.

Last week the Congregation of the Doctrine and the Faith, the outfit Pope Benedict used to run when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, issued a statement saying non-Catholic churches "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense."

The reason? The Catholic Church claims direct succession from Jesus' apostles to the pope, and so is the one true church. Non-Catholic churches do not accept the supreme authority of the pope and so are "wounded" and do not possess the path to salvation.

Not surprisingly, the statement by the Congregation - better known by its infamous former title, the Holy Office of the Inquisition (although long since robbed of it's thumbscrews and racks) - has gone over with other Christians like a lead balloon.

Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, spent a substantial chunk of his career healing old sectarian wounds with other faiths, Christian and non-Christian alike. I don't think it is too much to say that his ability to make peace with other religions without sacrificing the identity of his church won him the admiration of people around the world, be they believers or not.

It does seem as though Benedict was looking for the opposite reaction.

"Offensive statements," is how Lutheran Bishop Wolfgang Huber described the Vatican missive, which repeated Benedict's position on the matter documented in 2000. "The hope for a change in the ecumenical situation has been pushed further away by the document published today."

It would be one thing to say a Catholic is defined by such and such a belief, or that the church itself claims an authenticity based on its history. It is quite another to tell all non-Catholic Christians their churches are not real churches, and so therefore they are not real Christians.

Swift might call it "big-endism."

Why the Pope felt it necessary to fan the flames of sectarian division isn't clear. One almost gets the impression he takes the Reformation so personally, it's as if Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses right to Benedict's forehead.

Along with his recent restoration of the old school Latin Mass, his scolding of scientists who, he said, MUST leave room in their theories for God, it does seem rather like the pope is pining for the good old days of the middle ages. You know, when the church could lock you up for very serious offenses like, oh, saying the earth went around the sun. It is only half in jest when I say it sometimes appears to me that this pope fells as though the Vatican has a couple of centuries of burnings to catch up on.

The point isn't that the pope doesn't have a right to define his church and his faith. Of course he does. But effectively casting all other Christians as inferior isn't helpful. And really, if he thinks non-Catholics Christians are just wounded, what on earth does he think about non Christians? Or atheists?

In today's world, that kind of sectarian clap trap might even be dangerous.One only need look around the world at religiously motivated conflicts to see just how far sectarian absolutism can go.

In Iraq, "the armies of god," as author Christopher Hitchens describes them, are killing each other by the truckload over doctrinal disagreements.(The dispute between Shiite and Sunni Muslims begins with a disagreement over who had the right to succeed the Prophet Muhammad after his death.)

In Afghanistan, the Canadian military is fighting against the Taliban - a Muslim fundamentalist organization that regards those who don't interpret the Qur'an as they do as vermin to be exterminated.

Mind you, this is not to say Benedict's decree about the inferiority of non-Catholics will set Christians at each other's throats. Most thinking believers won't, I trust, lower their regard of their neighbours because of it.

But there are always a few who will take it to heart. For them, this creates a justification, unintended perhaps, for the vilification and demonization of those of other beliefs.

Which is the whole problem. The moment you believe that you are superior because you know which end of the egg to crack, it becomes easier to do harm to those who have the temerity to crack the other end.

Which is why, personally, I don't eat eggs.