Monday, December 31, 2007

"I am reluctant to use the word atheist to describe my own unshakeable disbelief, and that's not because I'm ashamed, afraid, or even embarrassed, but simply because it seems so self-evidently true to me that there is no god, and giving that conviction a special title somehow dignifies what it denies. After all, we don't have a special word for people who don't believe in ghosts or witches."

-Jonathan Miller from "A Brief History of Disbelief."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Jesus' Free Gift? Keep it please!

Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistant that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel.

-Thomas Paine

We've all experienced it at some point or another. It might have been in the form of a Mormon god patrol stopping you in the street. Or maybe the Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on your door before mid-day on a Saturday. It might have been someone on a soap box, or someone handing out those insipid Chick Tracks. Or, if you are a glutton for punishment like me and voice your atheistic views on Youtube, it might have taken the form of an email, comment or private message.

However, you might have experienced it, it's the same: A Christian trying to convert you.

Now, I often hear from people who would rather so called "active" atheists and anti-theists just go away, "Why do you pick so much on Christians? You must hate Christianity more than any other religion." Well, this is demonstrably not true. A quick scan of his blog will show you I take aim at religion generally, and most of the big ones come in for their specific bit of criticism sooner or later. But the fact is I live in a predominately Christian society and therefore it is only natural that I comment most on the world I happen to live in. Where I living in a Muslim or Hindu dominated nation, I'd probably be picking on them more.

Of course, there is another reason as well. No Muslim or Hindu has never, ever stopped me in the street to try and convert me. The cold calling conversion attempt is something that, so far as I know, almost exclusively Christian.

What also marks the attempts by those Christians bent on converting others is how aggressive they are about. Now, maybe this just me, but Mormons in particular seem to be able to hunt me down like a pack of bloodhounds. Maybe I have a bubble over my head with the words "HEATHEN" written on it, or maybe the Mormons have developed some kind of advanced heathen sonar system or something. I don't know. But each year, a pack of three of them find me in downtown St. Catharines. Its a different god patrol every year, but one thing is common: They don't take no for an answer. They just don't.

Take this example from my last run in with the LDS god patrol:

Mormons: "Excuse me, do you have a few minutes to talk about Jesus?"

Me: "No thank you. Goodbye."

Mormons: "Well, sir, it will only take a few minutes and its a message you really need to hear."

Me: "No I don't. I said no. Good day." [walks away]

Mormons: [following] "Well, have you ever considered the power of Jesus to change your life?"

Me: [walking away, cracking knuckles] "What part of no do you not understand? You're barking up the wrong tree."

Mormons: [still following] "Well why do you think that, sir? What tree is that?"

Me: [getting annoyed, still walking] "Buzz off. I'm not interested."

Mormons [still following] "Why is that sir? Why aren't you interested."

Me: [stops and turns around] "Stop following me. Get lost. I said no."

Mormons: "Well, do you know anyone we might be able to call upon who might be more open than you that we can share the message of Jesus with?"

At that point I walked into a bank and the trio of mormons left. What I really wanted to do was introduce them to my knuckles. But I wasn't raised in a barn so I didn't. But man was I sorely tempted.

They just don't give up. But as annoying as Mormon missionaries can be, nothing can be the used car salesman pitch used by Evangelists. Seeing as logic and science and reason are not their strong points, their strategy seems to be to ask a series of stupid question which they obviously thing are so penetrating . Check out the following bits from a Youtuber named Helivz who has been trying to convert me for several days:

"If you claim that Christ, Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit is non-existant, then why are you atheists so hung up on it? There, thats proof enough that a supernatural world does exist; one for good and one for evil.
One day this whole world / universe is going to be governed by Christ and all His followers. Get used to it. If you like losing, then stay on the path you are on. If you like winning, turn to Jesus before it's too late."

" You are my evidence that God does exist. The fact that I believe in God, and that I irritate you is evidence. Now, can you prove that satan doesn't exist?Oops, I don't think so. He was impeached during his last term just before Bush took office."

"Go to a free, Bob Larson rally and you'll see public exorcisms. Still doubt it? Go and confront Mr. Larson to his face, or the person with the demon for that matter, that Larson is ministering to, and see for yourself. That demon will likely name off every secret sin in your life, past and present. I'm offering you proof, but be prepared to be humbled."

" Lets talk about Heaven now.
1.)Streets paved with GOLD.
2.) No more pain, death, sorrow nor devil.
3.) Sin, sickness, disease will be a thing of the past.
4.) Uninterrupted pure joy, peace, contentment.
5.) No more "Madonnas" and "Britney Spears" to lead people into hell.
6.) Eternal life. The list goes on and on.

Why pay a high price for the counterfeit when the best is free?!"

Now, that last is the one that caught my eye. Not because this remotely qualifies as a argument or evidence that the Christian sky god exists. But because of that last line. The one about Jesus being "free."

This is the saddest example of evangelism out there, and it is about as common as a te;evangelist sex scandal.

You see, Christians pull a line from the book of Romans in which Jesus's offer of salvation is a "free gift." Well somewhere along the way, some beliefs left the poetry of the New Testament behind for what I can only describe as used-car salesman preaching. Even more vapid than Pascal's Wager, this is an attempt to hustle you into a religion using pitiful, high pressure sales tactics.

You find this "free gift crap" everywhere. Like this website for instance where the "free gift" is offered. Run the words "Jesus" and "free gift" on Google and you'll probably find better examples.

I say its used car sales man tactics because it is that low-brow. You'll hear them say things like "You know, when someone offers you a free gift, you usually think "what the catch?" But there is no catch with Jesus's free gift. It's free! How many things to you really get for free? You've have to be insane not to take something that is free!"

This is really one step away from a some kind of Used Car's by Jesus commerical:

"Hi! I'm Jesus, and have I got a deal for you! Tell me, son, what's it going to take to put you into this religion today? I got a free gift for you! My prices are so low, you'd think I should be crucified!"

I really have to wonder on what kind of mind this sort of huckerism works on. Can you really imagine someone saying "Oh well, its FREE! Well, then I'll just jump on board!"

Of course its not really "free" is it? You have to give up your will, the right to free thought and subject yourself to the authority of those who run a church...and that has always turned out just so great in history, hasn't it?

Still, in a way, its still better than the "convert by stealth" approach advocated by this website

which recommends you become friends with an atheist first and then after burrowing your way into his life, start to work on his mind until he caves.Anyway, to any Christians that might be reading this - get the message. We don't want your "free gift" and we aren't impressed by your car lot sales tactics. So give it a rest!

Oh and before you go, do you have a minute to talk about Charles Darwin and how the Origin of Species will change your life?:

Monday, December 24, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 3

“When facism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

-Sinclair Lewis

So we come to Mr. D'Souza's last claim about the western world and Christianity. In my previous two parts I've shown that he, at best, overstates his case, but often leaves out important facts to bolster his claim that, in effect, the western world was built by Christianity. Science, morality...basically all the hallmarks of western civilization are, he claims, the direct product of Christianity and the Christian world view.

This is not to say that Christianity isn't important in the history of the western world. After all, it has been the dominate religion for the centuries. For a long time questioning it publicly was a sure way to get yourself tortured and killed. Once the faith got most of its blood letting out of its system, questioning it publicly was still a sure what to ruin in your career. Sometimes it still is.

However, in as much as Christianity does inform our culture, D'Souza continually goes too far to claim that everything important about the western world comes from his chosen faith. And there is no more obvious example of this when he claims that democracy would not be possible without it.

His argument goes like this: Yes, the ancient Greeks had some kind of democracy thing going, but they had slaves. And its only through Christianity that slavery is abolished, because of course, Christians have always hated slavery, so therefore only true freedom comes from Christianity and thus so does democracy.

Anyone who knows the history of democracy, Greece, slavery and Christianity should already be able to spot the massive problems with D'Souza's argument.

First, he tries to downplay that democracy in Athens wasn't that important. Well, he would wouldn't he? To him, anything non-Christian isn't important. But the fact is that democracy beings as a radical experiment in Athens when the people rose up to depose their rulers and cease power for themselves. Without Athens there is no democracy at all. Our concepts of one person, one vote, of secret ballot, of the right of citizens to have a voice in their government and the right to choose that government all come from the Athenian experiment. (the idea of the rights and duties of a citizen being defined in a constitution comes from the great Athenian rival Sparta)

In fact, I will go a step more and say without these ideas we have no democracy at all. They are the bare minimum needed to have any kind of functioning democracy. Now, D'Souza wants to downplay this in favor of trying to say that because there were slaves in Athens, as there were, that this pretty much doesn't count.

Well, consider however, that in the Christian Bible there is not a word about how to organize a free society. Nothing about the right to vote, or run for office or any of the things that define a democracy. You do not get any instruction at all on democracy and political freedom. What you do get is a lot of talk about creating a kingdom, run by Jesus. No one gets to vote for Jesus. Or recall him from office. There are no checks and balances. No term limits. Not even a citizen's assembly. In fact, the very concept of citizenship is alien to Christianity because it is unconcerned with human freedom in the real world. To Christianity, this is all the opening act and the real show starts when Jesus literally conquers in the world at the end of time and is set up as absolute ruler. You can argue he would be a nice absolute ruler, but remember this - a gilded cage is still a cage.

Indeed it is very telling that Christianity chugged along just fine, thank you very much, under all many of totalitarian regimes for most of its history. In fact, Christianity didn't run into democracy until the concept was revived long after the dark ages ended. And when it was, did those thinkers, principally Christian because it was, after all, the only game in town, look to the bible? No they looked to Athens.

So of what the slavery issue? Well I've address this already in part one so I am not going to go back over it again. Just hop back a few posts and you'll find it. But to summarize it is very telling that Christianity functions happily in slave owning societies for centuries without much of a peep. Indeed, St. Paul counsels Christians to obey their masters and the Old Testament lays out rules by which slavery can be conducted. Nowhere in the bible will you find the phrase "thou shalt never keep slaves." And when Christian groups did get around to opposing slavery, groups like the Quakers, they had reinterpret the bible in a way that most Christians of the period were not. They became sectarian oddballs who stood with a growing secular intolerance toward slavery while the rest of the Christian world stood by.

What happened was not that Christianity created modern democratic notions forbidding slavery. Slavery died a very slow death, and often required the use of bullet and bayonets to do the job, not preaching. Wars like the American Civil War was not a battle of Christians verus evil slave owning heathens. It was a war that pitted Christian vs. Christian.

Instead, the times slowly changed. What Richard Dawkins called the moral zeitgeist changed. Christianity no doubt informs that change as more and more believers began to view the bible as a Quakers did on the issue. But even then it is not the exclusive domain of Christianity as D'Souza claims. For instance, the woman's right to vote was opposed by many religious groups, and the argument won on what was near completely secular political grounds.

The problem with all D'Souza's arguments is that he deliberate excludes important facts, presenting a black and white view of history in which Christianity beats back all negative things, leaving only good and positive things. It's the simply morality play of most comic books, ignoring the complex vagaries of human history in favor of scoring points with his conservative constituency.

It is not in Jesus that we find the roots of democracy, but in brave Athenian citizens who took the first steps toward creating a free society and inventing the very notion of democratic rule. It is not the bible that we find modern notions of equality and freedom but in the brilliant works and actions political men and women, some inspired by their faith and many without an a faith at all, shifted the political zeitgeist toward inclusiveness.

To claim this was the work of a single religion requires ignoring history and rewriting it as a religiously induced fantasy.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The sound and fury of Dinesh D'Souza - Part 2 -con't

It took the Church until 1832 to remove Galileo's work from its list of books which Catholics were forbidden to read at the risk of dire punishment of their immortal souls.
-Carl Sagan

here is a story about Galileo.

Having engaged his in one man revolt against the Catholic Church, the scientist is dragged before the dreaded Inqusition. Forced to recant his findings that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the cosmos, he is dragged away to live under house arrest. And as he is about the leave the room he whispers under his breath "and yet it moves," in defiance of the Chruch's insistence that the Earth stands still.

Hell of a tale isn't it? There's just one catch. It's not entirely true. And that last bit about "and yet it moves"? Rubbish. Never happened. But its part of the myth that has become part of the story of what is often called "The Galileo Affair." Now in his attempt to show that Christianity is the inventor of science, Dinesh D'Souza sets out to do what he figures is a revolutionary act - debunk the myths around the story of Galileo. (Hint to Mr. D'Souza. No serious scholarship has every taken this myth seriously.) Morever, he oddly claims this is an "atheist" myth, part of some nebulous atheist propaganda machine meant to make Christians look bad. You can see his views on this here.

He is actually quite right about several things. Galileo was never tortured. He was also a huge egoist who was not going to be old by anyone what he could think or write. And that Galileo was too smart not to know he was really going to piss off the pope by making him seem a fool in this great book.
Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. (I wrote more about the detials Galileo affair on this blog here and I am not going to repeat them at this point. So pleas feel free to back and read them).

D'Souza is also right that the church tired, in its way, not to get into a row with Galileo. You see he had written a letter to a Duchess who had asked him if when the bible said the earth didn't move was the bible wrong? Galileo said, well, yes, in fact scientifically speaking the bible was wrong. Rome, which had already decreed that the sun centered system first proposed by Copernicus was in violation of scripture and church teaching, wasn't going to take that laying down. And D'Souza is also right to say that Galileo was ordered by the infamous Cardinal Bellarmine not to "hold or defend" the Conperincan view. (Galileo agrees and asked for a ceritificate explaing the Cardinal orders and recieves it, signed by Bellarmine himself.) But then, as D'Souza always does, misses the important facts in favour a pre-determine conclusion. He portrays the Church as being intellectually honest and patient, and forced to bring Galileo before the inquisition. Hey sas Galileo recants out of exhaustion but it otherwise treated with respect by the Inquisition (and office well known for its tolerance and honesty.) Galileo, whose defense at this trail is "dishonest" according to D'Souza, is placed under house arrest and lived in comfort until his death 8 years later. Moroever, he implies that Galileo is to the blame here. It's his fault, not the church's.

Oh and the kicker here: Galileo was NEVER charged with heresy, D'Souza says.
But facts are tricky things, particularly when you avoid them. D'Souza says this about Galileo's trail:

In 1633, Galileo returned to Rome, where he was again treated with respect. He might have prevailed in his trial, but during the investigation someone found Cardinal Bellarmine's notes in the files. Galileo had not told the present Inquisitors - he had not told anyone - of his previous agreement not to teach or advocate Copernicanism. Now he was viewed as having deceived the church as well as having failed to live up to his agreements. Even his church sympathizers, and there were several, found it difficult to defend him at this point.

Ah, but that is not the whole story. One again, D'Souza doesn't do his research. Galilieo is actually charged by the Inquisition with "vehement suspicion of heresy" a fact D'Souza leaves out. Then there s this business bout the notes of Cardinal Bellarmine that apparently cannot be found. Tsk tsk. Here D'Souza makse a massive blunder.

You remember that note that Galileo had asked for from Ballarmine explaining the order not to hold or defend the sun centered view? This comes into play in a big way. The Inquisition says Galileo's book violated Ballarmine's orders not to "hold, defend or teach" and produce a document to that effect. But the old buzzard Galileo has an ace card. He produces HIS certificate given to him and signed by Ballarmine. It only says he could not "hold or defend" the view, but it says nothing about not teaching it. The you know what hits the fan. The Dominicans running the show during the trail are taken aback. They are meticulous record keepers and this is unexpected. The signature on the Inquisition's document appears suspect. And this might be the loop hole that Galileo needs to avoid torture. (These documents are all kept in the Vatican archives which shows the Inquisitor threatening to torture Galileo if he does not recant. D'Souza might want to look em up.)

Anyway, despite this pretty shocking term of events, Galileo's fate is sealed. He is ordered to recant, and this is a BIG thing D'Souza leaves out, under the threat of torture. Galileo is an old man backed into a corner. So he surrenders and recants. He is placed under house arrest for his remaining eight years of life.

D'Souza is correct to say that Galileo was being directly confrontational with the Church. And his sly gambit of producing Bellarmine's letter didn't work. And then D'Souza gets really odd. He basically says the Church acted in good faith in handling Galileo. Good faith? Threatening to torture an old man for holding a view that was forbidden by Church doctrine? Placing his books on the banned this and threatening those who read them with dire consequences? He says because the evidence Galileo presented was no definitive (in particular Galileo's use of the tides of proof, which turned out to be wrong) that the Church was right to censor Galileo. Consider what he is saying here. It's Galileo's fault for exploring science and talking about it, not the Church's fault for suppressing knowledge. D'Souza is saying that Galileo should have just obeyed the orders of a dictatorial church!

No, Mr. D'Souza, you got it wrong by ignoring the facts. It is true that Galileo caused himself a whole world of grief when he mocked the pope in his book. But he was silenced by a church with thin skin, threatened by new ideas and so threatened him with tortured and his books were banned. This is not the actions of a reasonable opened minded organization that D'Souza wants us to believe the church was. It was a dictatorial power that crushed any opposition to its authority.

This is why Galileo is rightly revered today. For this great scientific work and his arrogant defiance of religious authority.

There are many myths about what happened to Galileo, most simplifying a very complex situation. Well all D'Souza has done is created another myth by ignoring the facts.

By the by here is Carl Sagan presenting some of the important details of this subject. Compare to anything D'Souza presents: