Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Folly of Blind Faith - Thomas had it right.

The improver of natural science absolutely refuses to acknowledge authority, as such. For him, scepticism is the highest of duties: blind faith the one unpardonable sin. - Thomas Henry Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews, 1871

Imagine for a moment that you were in an accident. The bones in your leg have been seriously broken. You are taken to hospital and the attending surgeon looks at you and tells you he is going to sprinkle some apple juice on your leg and all will be well.

When you ask him why he would do such a thing, having not even taken an x-ray of your leg, the surgeon tells you that he knows the apple juice will cure you because he believes it will. What's more, he believes it because it has been revealed, privately, to him by a magical Apple Fairy that cannot be see or heard by anyone else. Fortunately, he wrote down everything the Apple Fairy said. So not to worry, the surgeon tells you, the Apple Fairy will heal you. And if you just have faith, he will.

Of course, this little story is utterly insane. Any doctor who said such a thing wouldn't be a practicing doctor for very long. And yet, many of our fellow citizens make claims that are just as crazy and they make them with complete seriousness of purpose. Televangelist Peter Popoff sells "miracle spring water" on infomercials and claims it will bring you lots of money if you drink it...and send Popoff a cheque, of course.

People that buy that stupid Q-ray bracelet believe it relieves their pain, even though Health Canada has prohibited the makers from making any health claims about the bracelets because scientific tests show it has no effect at all.

Far more ubiquitous than holy water or magical wristbands is an Oprah Winfrey-endorsed, top-selling DVD and companion book called "The Secret".

In a nutshell, The Secret claims that you can actually change the physical universe purely through your own wishful thinking. You want a new car? A hot girlfriend? A better job? You don't have to actually do anything. You just have to THINK about it and the cosmos will provide. The Secret isn't preaching the old power of positive thinking routine the self-help book industry has been on about for years.The Secret goes one step further than the usual, don't-sweat-the-small-stuff-chicken-soup-for-the-credulous-soul junk. It claims your "thoughts can become things."

Apparently, the universe is like Aladdin's genie. Wish really hard and Shazam! it will come true. "Ask, believe, receive," is the mantra of The Secret. The real secret is that it's nothing but saccharine, pseudo-scientific, sycophantic babble designed to prey on the gullible, the lazy and the desperate. It's so dishonest that professional con-artists must be saying, "Wow, why didn't I think of that? I'm so stupid."

But people BELIEVE IT. They will shell out their limited money because they have faith that the miracle water, magic wrist bands or vapid DVD will give them what they want.

Now while many believe it, others will say "Well, those folks are just stupid and gullible. These things are OBVIOUSLY not true." And we know it's not true because the claims being made are ridiculous and, if tested, crumble under the light of scientific inquiry. Yet, if the doctor from the above scenario had not said apple juice would fix your leg, but that he would pray to Jesus over it, would you consider him just as crazy? Many would not.

Which brings me to the entire concept of blind faith - and really, I don't think there is any other kind.

Faith, simply put, is the complete acceptance of things for which there is no observable evidence. On this count, the outlandish claims of the Secret and the Bible and the Koran are on equal footing. In each case, you must ignore reason and cast aside evidence and believe the most fantastic things to be true. It is a surrender of the one faculty that truly marks us as human, and makes us different from even our closest genetic cousins - our faculties of reason.

It is this willingness to dispense with logic and reason that drives people to want to teach unscientific nonsense in schools, to demonize people because of who they choose to sleep with, and, in the most extreme cases, stone a young girl to death in public for merely dating someone of a different faith as we recently saw in Iraq. Or crashing planes into sky scrappers as we saw six years ago.

There is a story in the New Testament where, after Jesus has risen from the dead, his followers gather. They tell one of their own, a skeptic named Thomas, that Jesus is back from the dead. "Oh, come on," Thomas said. "Tell me another one." But they insist it's true. Thomas is incredulous. "I'm not going to believe something so insane unless Jesus stands before me and I can stick my fingers in his wounds." Of course, this is the Bible, so Jesus does appear, and Thomas gets to stick his fingers into Jesus's oddly unhealed wounds. Thomas, with the evidence of the resurrection standing in front of him, becomes a believer.

But the story doesn't end there. Thomas receives a rebuke from Jesus. "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

The message is simple. Don't doubt. Don't question. Don't investigate. Simply believe. Have faith. Thomas, according to Jesus, shouldn't have been asking for evidence. He should have just believed in the unbelievable. And so today if a person says they have faith, that is praised as a virtue.

I don't see how it is a virtue. I rather think Thomas had it right. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Blind faith isn't just blind. It's dangerous.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Discrimination against Atheists

This speaks for itself.

A short but interesting article by Richard Dawkins

How dare you call me a fundamentalist: The right to criticise ‘faith-heads’, from the Times.
" The hardback God Delusion was hailed as the surprise bestseller of 2006. While it was warmly received by most of the 1,000-plus individuals who volunteered personal reviews to Amazon, paid print reviewers gave less uniform approval. Cynics might invoke unimaginative literary editors: it has “God” in the title, so send it to a known faith-head. That would be too cynical, however. Several critics began with the ominous phrase, “I’m an atheist, BUT . . .” So here is my brief rebuttal to criticisms originating from this “belief in belief” school."

Read the full article here

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Religion vs. Atheism Part 2

Often when critics of religion like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens mention the amount of blood - and its a lot - spilled in the name of some god or another through history, the religiously inclined retort that atheism has wiped out its fair share of people as well. Nay, they say, atheism has killed MORE people because the greatest butchers of all time, the dictators of the 20th century such as Hitler and Stalin massacred people on a scale that religious atrocities such as the Inquisition never had a hope of approaching. Ergo, they argue, atheism is worse than religion. Religion might make some people behave badly, but atheism is much much worse.

It's a curious argument to be sure. It both misses the point of what thinkers like Hitchens or Dawkins are saying and is, for the most part, wrong - particularly when it comes to idiots like Stalin and Hitler.

Firstly, what Dawkins et al are saying is this: Religion doesn't, at the end of the day, make anyone behave any better than they do without it. On the other hand, because most religions draw stark lines between believers and non-believers, and often is extremely hostile toward non-believer to the point of utter condemnation, religion provides an easy justification to harm, perhaps to the point of killing, other people of different points of view. The Inquisition is justified and motivated by faith. The nuts who kill abortion doctors justify their murders through their faith. The 9-11 terrorists and the entire Islamlist Jihadist world view is motivated by and justified by their faith.

Now by the same token, you never hear of an atheist blowing himself up in a pizza shop or crashing a plane into a skyscraper and the like. The reason is because atheism is not a belief. It has no codes or creeds. It has no priests, pastors or popes. It has no bibles, scriptures or commandments written on stones. It has no organization at all. There is no atheist code that says someone should be stoned because they don't believe in god, or who they sleep with, or for working on a Saturday or Sunday.

What atheism is, all atheism is, is someone saying they will not believe something for which there is no evidence. Period. Atheism by definition provides no justification for killing anyone for any reason at all. There might be a justifiable reason to kill another person such as in self defense. But that has nothing to do with the intellectual position of not believing in an invisible, supernatural god or gods on the say so of an ancient book without a shred of evidence.

So whereas religions often provide explicit instructions on when and how to murder someone - just read up your Old Testament for instance - atheism provides no such justifications.

So, that said, when the religiously inclined say the worst horrors in history committed by Stalin and Hitler are the horrors committed by atheists, because they are atheists, do they even have a leg to stand on?

No. They assume, incorrectly, that atheism must have the same kinds of rules about how, who and when to kill as their own religion does. And they make a further mistake by labeling Hitler an Stalin as atheists in the first place.

First lets deal with genocidal moron #1 - Adolf Hitler. Was he an atheist? Nope. Hitler was raised as a Catholic, but would end up rejected Catholicism. However, he believed in God and Jesus often referred to himself as Christian - although his Christianity was something most Christians I know would not , thankfully, recognize as their faith at all. Nevertheless, what this loony advocated was a Nazified version of Christianity sometimes called "Positive Christianity" which saw Jesus as an active fighter against Jews. This sort of intense anti-semitism was in vogue not just in Germany, but all over the western world at the time. Hitler used this as part of his justification for his insane "final solution". It also served as part of the whole Nazi thing, in which their nationalist nonsense took on a religious life of its own - complete with blind faith and obedience to a higher power...only in this case, the higher power was a ex-house painter with a lousy mustache.

It would be, I think, incorrect to say Hitler did what he did solely because of his religious beliefs. But it is totally incorrect to say that Hitler was an atheist. He was religious.

Now, genocidal moron #2 - Joesph Stalin. Was this comrade an atheist? So far as I know, and I stand to be corrected, yes he was. However, did Stalin do what he did because he was an atheist? Nope.

Compared to his one-time Nazi ally, Stalin's actions and attitudes toward religion are more complex. He was utterly hostile to organized religion and went after the Russian Orthodox Church with a zeal that would chill Chingis Khan, (but as a sometimes pragmatist, he let them alone during World War 2 because they were a "patriotic organization"). The question is why. Atheism has no creeds or codes that could be used to justify his actions. Rather, Stalin's violence was in part a result of his nutty paranoid personality and the repressive nature of the Soviet government that he, along with Lenin before him, had built.

The USSR under Stalin was, like Nazi Germany, a hyper-nationalistic state (created so by lethal force). The state had to replace religion because the only loyalty could be to the state - and what's more, that state had its leader to which you had to totally loyal and obedient. It was cult of personality. Stalin's face was everywhere from photos in classrooms to huge paintings in public places. Stalin was destroying religions, in part, as a way to wipe out the competition. He needed Soviet citizens to be loyal to him and him alone - not to Jesus or Buddha or Mohammad. Undoubtedly, that he didn't personally believe in any of the teachings of the religions he was crushing helped the process along...it is must easier to destroy something you have no stake in after all. But his justifications, rooted as they were in the cult of personality he created and the whole Soviet communist philosophical clap-trap, underpinned his actions, not his unbelief in god.

At the end of the day, the term "atheism" might not even properly apply here. What he created was not an atheistic state. Stalinism was the state "faith". He created a Stalinist state using ubiquitous propaganda, a personality cult and secret police to establish himself as an absolute dictator. Stalin was not so much an atheist as he was the ultimate Stalinist. (Although he never used the term to describe himself. He was an "Marxist-Leninist", he would have said, and like Nazism, the whole Marxist-Leninist dogma required a complete surrender of yourself to a idea unsupported by evidence...just like in most religions.)

Both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes had all the hallmarks of a religion, and were not particularly atheist states at all. They both created a culture that crushed skeptical inquiry - the only true hallmark of atheist thinking - and enforced blind obedience and loyalty. To question the state, was to question the truth of the world as these governments defined it...and to deny that was to forfeit your life. The only reason their death tolls were of an order of magnitude greater than the religious atrocities that came before them was not because Hitler was not a "proper" Christian or because Stalin didn't believe in god. It was because Hitler and Stalin had access to technology that simply hadn't existed before.

Consider what the Inquisition would have been capable of if they had guns, tanks, gas chambers and other 20th century tools of death. It's a sobering thought.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Religion vs. Atheism, Part 1.

Book stores, video blogs, Youtube, tv news and newspapers are filled these days with atheists going on about religion. And not often in a nice, why can't we all get along sorta way. More in a 'get the hell off my lawn!' style. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others are all standing up and saying the time has come for atheists to have their say. I can't agrue with them.

As you might expect, religious folks don't take the slashing critiques of a Dawkins or Hitchens laying down. One of the common threads in books like Dawkins's "The God Delusion" or Hitchens "God is not Good" is the idea that religion, at best, does not make people behave any better than someone with no religion. At worst, it gives people an excuse to do the horrible things to other people.

These observations, while leveled at all religion, are aimed more directly at the great monotheistic faiths - Christianity, Judaism and Islam. And it is followers of those faiths that fire back most often. They give several kinds of responses, and I want to focus on two of the most common here. The first is a general kind of comment that says "Well, democratic societies like Canada or the United States are free and good, and the reason they are free and good is because they are based upon 'Judeo-Christian Principles'. That being the case, religion DOES make people behave better because democracy is the best system of government yet devised." The second is to say, "Well, it's true horrible things have been done in the name of faith, but the same is true of atheists and in fact the greatest horrors of the 20 the century were created by atheists like Hitler and Stalin."

I want to address both of these points in this two part entry "Religion vs. Atheism" Here in part one, I will deal with the idea that western democracies and societies are founded on religious principles. In part 2 I will address the notion that atheists committed the worst atrocities of the 20 the century.

You will see the phrase "Canada was founded on Judeo-Christian Principles" several times a year in the letters to the editor pages of any major newspaper. This is usually in response to some article or letter about allowing homosexuals equal rights or someone of another faith doing something in public...like breathing. Ironically the phrase Judeo-Christian is almost meaningless. Jews are not Christians because they reject the claims of the New Testament, and Christians are not Jews because they accept those claims. Still, the phrase is tossed about as if it carries an authority that cannot be questioned - although the term itself and what is supposed to mean is almsot never defined.

So just how accurate is the statement that our democractic societies are based on Judeo-Christian principles?

Not very as it turns out.

First, anyone with even a passing knowledge of history knows that democracy has exactly nothing to do with either the Jewish or Christian faith. The scriptures say nothing, absolutely nothing, about organizing a free society where citizens can make the decisions. It provides no guides, no rules, or even general suggestions how to set up a free government, how to ensure all citizens (and all faiths) are protected equally under the law. They are totally silent on how to write a proper constitution, how to balance individual freedoms with the needs of society as a whole, or how to set up a free vote. There are lots of rules in the scriptures, many of which involve stoning, burning and otherwise dispatching people who do not believe in horrible ways. But not a single line on the rights and responsibilities of free citizens.

No, democracy did not come to us on stone tablets or in the blood of an executed prophet. It comes to us from people who wanted to free themselves from tyranny, who want to establish a society where citizens governed themselves and everyone was equal under the law. It came to us from the Greeks. It is to them, not to the Jews or Christians, that the great tradition of western liberal thought, free democracy and science come - specifically the Athenians and, to a lesser extent, the Spartans. It is from them that our notions of rationality, government, constitution and citizenship begin. Our society is based on Greek principles, not Jewish or Christian ones.

The American constitution, the most brilliant democratic document of all time, the Almighty is not mentioned once. God appears only in passing in the Canadian constitution, but in a reference so vague - deliberately so - that it can mean anything to anyone. It is quite true religion has played an important role in society, as it has in every society everywhere on the planet. It can provide a sense of community and belonging, for instance. But so do a lot of other things. But the foundational, organizing principles of the west are neither Judeo or Christian.

Then what principles from the Judeo-Christian mode are supposed to be so fundamental that they form the very roots from which our society springs? It's not political roots, for those come to us from the Greeks, down through the Roman Republic, lost for a time to tyranny that used religion as its justification for its "divine right" to rule, and finally restored with the re-emergence of democracy in the west - with the United States perhaps being the crown jewel of the freedom experiment we have been engaged in since the Athenians started it.

So no, it's not democracy. What then? Without democracy, what is western society? Many point of the 10 Commandants...one of the few concrete touchstones between Christianity and Judaism. Again, no dice. The first five are all about not upsetting God - no idols, no other gods, keeping a special holy day, etc. These "commandments" do not in any way figure into our political or legal frameworks. The others, like no killing, no stealing, etc., are hardly unique to Christianity. Nearly every culture in the history of the planet has developed simple and clear injunctions against murder and theft and a host of other crimes. To say that the particular commandments are "foundational" because they are Judeo-Christian, is to imply that non-Judeo-Christian societies possess no such social agreements. Well, in fact, they do.

So the first five are about a particular supernatural god who never appears in our political or legal frameworks, and the second half are common place injunctions against crimes that every culture has come up with. That isn't much of a foundation is it?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Buddhist Atheist??

Do not accept what you hear by report, do not accept tradition, do not accept a statement because it is found in your books, nor because it is in accord with your belief, nor because it is the saying of your teacher.
Be lamps unto yourselves.
Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.
-The Buddha

Many years ago, these words are what drew me to Buddhism. Long before I first read them I had given up any pretense in believing in a God or gods. Mostly on the grounds that there was no evidence. The credibility of books like the Koran or the Bible come from, well....the Koran or the Bible. Basically you believe because the books says you should believe, and you know the book is true because the book says it is. That kind of circular logic never convinced me of anything, even as a young person. By the time I hit high school, a Catholic school no less, I came to accept that there is no more or less reason to believe in the Trinity, or Allah, the great juju atop the mountain, or the invisble pink unicorn for that matter.

There just wasn't any evidence. None at all.

What Buddhism was saying though was much different that the Koran or the Bible, both of which claimed absolute truth because of its own purported authority. Buddhism was saying "do not accept anything blindly, test your conclusions against the life, and if you turn out to be wrong, adjust your thinking and move on." It seemed, well, a kind of kin to the scientific method.

Moreover, it's ethical teachings were based on a notion that you are good toward other people because, well, it is good to be good. This seemed to make far more sense than the Abrahamic God - whose own ethical behavior in the Old Testament is often completely evil - who orders you do to good OR ELSE! Duh duh duh! You do good in that case, essentially, out of fear. But what Buddhism was saying was you do good because it is right to do it. It came down to compassion vs. righteousness. Doing good for its own sake, vs. doing good because if you don't you will be punished...forever.

It all made sense. It seemed totally rational. But for one thing.


Now I can justify reincarnation using physics. Matter and energy are never destroyed, only transformed, etc. So our bodies decompose and became part of the life cycle again. And it is true the Buddha himself said almost nothing about what happens after death. Reincarnation was a kind of inheritance from Hinduism.

But here is the fact. Reincarnation, as a notion you are are reborn again and again because of a cosmic law of karmic cause and effect, is in the final analysis, as untenable as the God hypothesis. There is no evidence. No proof that if I behave badly, I will be reborn as a dung bettle, or if I behave well, I will be a well off human person.

So certainly I still hold to the ethical teachings, and accept the benefits of meditation - there is nothing supernatural about any of that. This being the case, is a Buddhist automatically an atheist, or is possible to be an atheist and a Buddhist?

Maybe more to the point - does the label "Buddhist" really mean anything if one takes the above quotation from the Buddha himself seriously?