Daily Atheist Quote

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Grant vs. the afterlife - Part 4

On Nov. 25 in Fonthill's St. Alexander's Church I debated Catholic Brock University professor David Goicoeecha on the existence, nature and meaning of the afterlife. We were very fortunate to have Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry moderating the debate and he did an excellent job. It was a lively event, and fairly well attended. I will post my own recap later, but if you want an overview of the night check out Justin's blog here: http://www.equalismactivism.com/?p=2151 In Part 1, I posted my opening remarks. Part 2 are David's opening remarks. Part 3 is my first rebuttal and what follows is David's rebuttal. I will post a Part 5 which will be my overall view of the night.

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Grant, in responding to your objections against the faith and practise of Catholics concerning the afterlife I will address your following eight points about: 1) evidence 2) only facts mattering 3) vicarious redemption 4) personal responsibility 5) justice 6) mandatory love 7) suffering and 8) philosophical arguments.

You write that “From an evidentiary point of view Jesus stands equally with Thor, with Zeus, and any other god ever believed in.” As I respond to your objections about evidence I will give evidence for eight different kinds of evidence and argue that your argument that only facts matter is very reductionistic. Since evidence is that which makes manifest the truth and motivates us to accept it I will try to give evidence for evidence that is: 1) historical 2) emotional 3) literary 4) psychologically comparative 5) ethically comparative 6) logical 7) exemplary and 8) metaphysical.


1) FROM MERE FACTS TO HISTORICAL EVIDENCE No one claims that Thor or Zeus were historical beings living at a certain time and place but most accept that Jesus, at least as a man, did live and teach at the beginning of our era. To bring out the value of historical evidence I will think with you about the historical Paul as related to the historical Jesus. Paul wrote his letters before the year 65 and these letters are historical evidence for the existence of Paul and Jesus. Saul was a persecutor of Christians because he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah or the Son of God. But then according to the story about him in The Acts of the Apostles he beheld Stephen smiling lovingly upon those who were stoning him to death. That fact so haunted him that he then heard the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That evidence from the way Stephen loved his enemies as did Jesus and from the voice of the resurrected Jesus motivated Saul to become Paul who believed in, proclaimed and wrote about the historical Jesus who was killed and who rose from the dead. Grant, do you really mean to deny that Jesus and Paul were historical Persons?

2) FROM MERE FACTS TO EMOTIONAL COGNITION’S EVIDENCE Grant, you write: “Evidence matters. Facts matter. Personal affirmations or appeals to ideas that happen to make us feel better do not.” But is there not an emotional cognition which motivates that Pascal, Hume and Max Scheler explain in convincing fashion? There are the values of beauty, goodness, truth and holiness. The heart has its reasons which the mind knows not for discerning these values. Our passions know their nuances and motivate us to perform our physical, vital, intellectual and spiritual exercises as we seek fuller life, light, logos and love with their health, happiness, wisdom and holiness. Grant, do you mean to deny this emotional cognition whose evidence is our chief motivator?

3) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE TRUTH OF STORIES
Grant, you argue that the story of vicarious suffering for the redemption of others is immoral and harmful. Heaping the wrongs of mankind on the God-man is a scapegoating that violates every sense of justice. But, according to the stories of The Good News Stephen imitated Jesus in suffering for his enemies and that was such powerful evidence that it came to play a role in Paul’s thinking who said: “I make up in my suffering what is lacking in the suffering of Christ.” This story of a love that suffers even for the enemy has more truth to it than any simple fact without value. As the great literature of humankind shows there can be more truth in fiction than in fact. I am not saying that this story of suffering for others with love is a fiction. But, Grant, have not Stephen, Paul and many holy saints found joy and brought joy to other by going through their Dark Night out of love with Jesus for others? Would you condemn and belittle the mother who can find joy even in suffering for her child?

4) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE EVIDENCE OF COMPARATIVE PSYCHOLOGIES
Grant, I agree with you that personal responsibility is very important. But if you study the history of the concept of personhood you will see that it was first worked out to understand the three persons in the one God. For the Greeks the word person or prosopon referred to the mask which an actor wore in the Greek Theatre. In Latin, that was translated into persona or that through which the voice sounds. Tertullian, an early Church father around 150 AD., began to write of the three persons of the Trinity. That was defined at the Council of Nicea in such a way that each person was equal in worth or dignity, each was unique and each was interrelated or interpersonal. With Augustine in De Trinitate and Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy this threefold notion of personhood began to be applied to human persons. In other cultures there is no idea that all humans are persons of equal worth which is the basis of a responsibility of all persons for all persons. The basis for the Canadian approach to health, education and welfare is grounded in this notion that persons like Tommy Douglas expound as rooted in the Christian heritage. If you compare various cultural psychologies you will see the evidence why none is like the Christian in upholding personal rights.

5) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE EVIDENCE OF COMPARATIVE ETHICS Grant, you argue that: “In Catholic thinking everyone is ‘good’ regardless of what they have done and can be purified in purgatory.” Thank you for this statement which directly relates to our question about the afterlife. But let us notice the complexity of what you are saying. In accord with justice people are guilty of any harm they do to self or to another. Evil thoughts, words, and deeds are blameworthy. But God does not make junk and all flesh will exist happily with the God who is the love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit throughout eternity. But between the time we die and the resurrection of the flesh at the end o the world we will in accordance with justice have the opportunity to reconcile with each other in the purificational process of purgatory. All other ethics as you suggest put the primacy upon justice. But Catholic ethics stresses the incarnational love theology as primary and the atonement justice theology as secondary. When you compare the ethical worldview of the various religions and philosophies you are right that all but the Catholic put the emphasis on justice. Holy Mother Church does stress a love for all flesh.

6) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE EVIDENCE OF THE LOGIC OF AGAPEIC LOVE Once Paul beheld Stephen loving those who were killing him he saw the logic of a new ethics. Before Jesus, loving your neighbour meant loving those of your own ethnocentric group. But Paul saw that in Christ’s love there is no longer Jew nor Greek, master nor slave, male nor female for all persons are equally lovable just as are the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The new love command frees us from a preferential love and frees us for a new universal love. Grant, is that not the greatest love story ever told? Is not the logic that leads us to love all a valid sort of existential evidence?

7) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE EVIDENCE OF CHRIST’S EXEMPLARY SUFFERING Grant, you recite the litany of how the Catholic Church has only made millions of people suffer with its barbarous inquisitions, crusades, condemnations of scientists, sexual abuse of minors and spreading of HIV in Africa which as you claim “are problems fueled by a theology divorced from suffering.” But, is not the ethics that is rooted in love for all connected with a theology that wants to mitigate suffering as much as possible And when suffering is inevitable does not Jesus give us an example of how to transform the five sorrowful mysteries into the five joyful mysteries through the five glorious mysteries even though they remain sorrowful? Many members of the Body of Christ are guilty of many sins against others and we thank you, Grant, for pointing some of these out. We are thankful, Grant, that a person with such a sensitive conscience as your own can help us Catholics see our barbarity. You, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and others can help us know better what and what not to think, do and say. Thank you.

8) FROM MERE FACTS TO THE METAPHYSICAL EVIDENCE OF THE GREEK PHILOSOPHERS
Grant, you mention that the Greek philosophers had no definitive ideas about life after death. However, Plato did write his Phaedo which gives six arguments for the immortality of the soul. He clearly believes that the world soul or life force always existed and that we fell from it to be embodied because of the double burden of forgetfulness and wrongdoing. As we climb the ladder of love and get out of the cave through a proper remembering with literature, science, mathematics and philosophy our extracted soul will be immortal in the world soul once again. Aristotle reasoned metaphysically according to the principle of “action follows being”. You cannot perform vegetative, animal or human actions unless you have a soul or life force proper to those actions. Humans can think about immaterial abstract universal ideas thus they must have an immaterial soul or intellect that cannot be broken into parts or destroyed. The Catholic tradition has greatly appreciated the Greek Philosophers with Augustine being a Platonist, Aquinas being an Aristotelian and the Franciscans following the Stoics. Your Materialists, Grant, are one of the five great schools of Greek philosophy and they have always been taken seriously and with respect but Catholics do not agree with only facts about only material things. That is only one part of the big picture for Catholic wisdom. get to more of your ideas.

Grant vs. the afterlife - Part 3


On Nov. 25 in Fonthill's St. Alexander's Church I debated Catholic Brock University professor David Goicoeecha on the existence, nature and meaning of the afterlife. We were very fortunate to have Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry moderating the debate and he did an excellent job. It was a lively event, and fairly well attended. I will post my own recap later, but if you want an overview of the night check out Justin's blog here: http://www.equalismactivism.com/?p=2151

In Part 1, I posted my opening remarks. Part 2 are David's opening remarks. The following is my written notes regarding my first rebuttal...although I went well off script in some places in order to make my point and same time:
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Evidence matters. Facts matter. They matter in nearly every important aspect of our lives. They matter in your finances and your job. They matter when it comes to the reliability of the brakes on your car. They certainly matter in our justice system and in how medicine is practiced. Consider, if the recent H1N1 flu vaccine was never tested in a lab, but was say, akin to homeopathy? A meaningless, untested, cure-all that the user has to have faith in?

I point this out because there is a curious thread running through David’s commentary. He talks a great deal about love and hope and, ultimately his preferences. He makes statements of belief based on how they make him feel. What we ought to believe appears to be judged on what makes us feel better.

But not only would I contend he is simply incorrect on many of these points, but they strike me as wish thinking, choosing to believe what is comforting, rather than what is true.

Consider for instance, his quoting the present Pope as the laboratory having “no hope.” The lab has nothing to believe in, he contends. No promise of immortality, or seeing dead loved ones or , ultimately, no talk of gods.


We are told that hope only lies in the last living institution of the ancient Roman Empire and its dogmas and doctrines of the afterlife. Such a view undervalues exactly what the laboratory has done for human kind.

A short overview of the history of science shows that work done in the lab has cured diseases and wiped out small pox and polio. It has created crops that can feed millions that would otherwise go hungry, produced the information age, put a man on the moon, and extended our sight to see the smallest bits of matter to the farthest reaches of space, into the deep past and put us on the doorstep of the origin of the universe itself. Show me a single Catholic belief that has done any of that. For all the Church’s sometimes impressive efforts at social justice, it has never and indeed cannot, match the accomplishments of science to better the human condition and relieve suffering.


Nothing to hope for? Really? Consider for instance David’s claim that the church is what gives humanity as sense of connection. We are, as he puts it, all part of the body of Christ. Of course, the implication here is that without this “body” we lose this connection with other creatures.

This is patently, and demonstrably, untrue. One of the most important conclusions that is drawn from the study of biology is the profound interconnectedness of all living things. Our species, like all others, is here as a result of a long and slow evolutionary process. All life is shaped by it. And we, as a species, are descended from others. We were not placed here specially by some divine hand. Rather we are the same as every other living creature.

What this means is that all the things we used to identify an us from a them – language, culture, clothing, or skin tone – are ultimately meaningless. We can trace our evolutionary lineage back to a point where such distinctions vanish and, as the author Nino Ricci points out, all that is left is a single human species.

Combined with the results of work in astronomy which shows us that, on a cosmic scale, were are not even close to being the focal point of the universe and that if our planet vanished tomorrow the cosmos would keep doing what it is doing just fine. We have no privileged place on this planet or the universe at large. As Carl Sagan so clearly points out in Pale Blue Dot, Earth is the only home we have, be it though a dot in the universal scheme of things, and we are stuck with each other. We are connected, by biology and cosmology to our planet and to ourselves. One need only see the photo of earth taken by NASA space probes that are now beyond our solar system to have this point driven home.

No religion is capable of demonstrating this undeniable fact, for no religion is capable of mustering the evidence to demonstrate its truth.

Consider also the statements made by Ratzinger in the quotes David provides. The pope says things like: “In death a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth. He takes up that place which is truly his by right.”

Really? By what means does Ratzinger claim to know this? His personal view of the bible? Catholic tradition? Personal revelation? All of these are insufficient, and lack the weight of any substantial evidence. And, in case, Ratzinger is unable to show us why we should take his word for any of it, over say the word of a Muslim cleric or the Dali Lama. The metaphysical claims of these religions are mutually exclusive. By what means does David and his pope suggest we know that their claims are true?

There is, of course, the weight of history to be considered before one can even approach a discussion of the afterlife. Historians have long been aware of the historical unreliability of the bible and, like Socrates, we cannot eve be certain Jesus existed as a flesh and blood person.

If he did exist, he wrote nothing himself. His biographers, writing long after the events in question, got elementary pieces of history wrong, including the historical events that are supposed to give some historicity to the birth of Jesus. As Christopher Hitchens explains, “The Gospel according to Luke states that the miraculous birth occurred in a year when the Emperor Caesar Augustus ordered a census for the purposes of taxation, and that this happened at a time when Herod reigned in Judaea and Quirinius was governer of Syria. That is the closest to a triangulation of historical dating that any writer even attempts. But Herod died four years "BC" and during his rulership the governor of Syria was not Quirinius. There is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian, but the Jewish chronicler Josephus mentions one that did occur- without the onerous requirement for people to return to their places of birth, and six years after the birth of Jesus is supposed to have taken place.”

The works in the New Testament written closest to the time Jesus is alleged to have live, the work of St. Paul, are not even eye witness accounts and curiously the biographical details of Jesus’ life are of little interest to him. His focus is entirely on the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Whether Jesus was born of a virgin, or raised a dead man, or walked on water – all noteworthy events one would think – are of little concern to St. Paul.

Even pagan writers, at the dawn of the Christian era, found something a little odd about the Biblical story. Well they should have. They had heard it all before. Virgin births, resurrections, miracles, and everlasting life after death were common place stories in a society drenched with a rich mythology stretching back before the stories of Homer. In fact, early church fathers, like Justin Martyr, could not pretend the similarities did not exist. He explicated stated in his famous “first apology” about the Jesus story that “When we say that Jesus Christ was produced without sexual union, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended to heaven, we propound nothing new or different from what you believe regarding those whom you call the sons of Jupiter.”

Thomas Paine, the great enlightenment thinker and father of the American and French revolutions, dismissed the Christian story on the grounds that it was, essentially, a plagiarism . In the “Age of Reason” he wrote:

It is curious to observe how the theory of what is called the Christian Church, sprung out of the tail of the heathen mythology. A direct incorporation took place in the first instance, by making the reputed founder to be celestially begotten. The trinity of gods that then followed was no other than a reduction of the former plurality, which was about twenty or thirty thousand. The statue of Mary succeeded the statue of Diana of Ephesus. The deification of heroes changed into the canonization of saints. The Mythologists had gods for everything; the Christian Mythologists had saints for everything. The church became as crowded with the one, as the pantheon had been with the other; and Rome was the place of both. The Christian theory is little else than the idolatry of the ancient mythologists, accommodated to the purposes of power and revenue; and it yet remains to reason and philosophy to abolish the amphibious fraud.

Harsh words, perhaps, but their direct tone does not undermine their accuracy and lead to accusations that Paine – a deist – was in fact an atheist, a seriously damaging and pejorative term in the 19th century, and indeed in some circles today.

So we have little reason to accept the life of Jesus as played out in the bible as accurate. Why then would we accept claims of an afterlife?

It is also worth noting, before we move on, that David has claimed the catholic church proclaims there is no hell. This is a staggering claim to make, given the contents of Catholic theology and the statements of the present pope, whom David quotes so extensively. Indeed, it is important to note that the Jewish texts, from which Christianity springs, does not have a hell that is a place of torment. It is only from Jesus, the “meek and mild” that we learn of the concept of a place where one is tortured forever for failing to obey and love god properly.

Though an immoral and ridiculous concept, we must note that Christians views of hell are not uniform. The are as many version of hell as there are sects of Christianity. By what evidence do we accept one sects claims over the others? The Catholics can no more demonstrate their version of the afterlife is any more accurate than any Protestant view of it.

But while what hell is or how one gets there might vary from sect to sect, it is nevertheless a binding common feature of all forms of Christianity that is that hell is real and where those who do not meet the conditions of heaven are sent. The present pope, as I already mentioned, could not have made his views clearer on the subject – hell is real, its just not fashionable to talk about it.

Finally, I will make what I hope will put this line of discussion to bed. The recruitment by David, and other Catholics, of Fredrick Nietzsche to their cause. David contends that Nietzsche was some type of follower of Jesus, if not a Christian altogether. This is false. Nietzsche was a strident atheist and the best thing he could say about Jesus was the man lived, if he lived at all, exactly as he preached. This is why Nietzsche declared there was only one Christian, and that guy was executed on the cross. He found Jesus’s morality to be naïve, and thus declared him an idiot and the religion that worships him a blight. As anyone familiar with the body of Nietzsche work knows (quote mining the man is simply to ignore the breathe of his philosophical work) he did not hold up Jesus as the highest example of humanity. Rather he looked to the destruction of religion, the death of god, and the creation of new, life affirming morals and ethics by his “overman”, one that might look to the mythology of Dionysus, not the mythology of Jesus, as inspiration.

Grant vs. the afterlife - Part 2

On Nov. 25 in Fonthill's St. Alexander's Church I debated Catholic Brock University professor David Goicoeecha on the existence, nature and meaning of the afterlife. We were very fortunate to have Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry moderating the debate and he did an excellent job. It was a lively event, and fairly well attended. I will post my own recap later, but if you want an overview of the night check out Justin's blog here: http://www.equalismactivism.com/?p=2151

In Part 1, I posted my opening remarks. The following are David's opening remarks:

I. INTRODUCTION

Dear Grant,
As we debate Secular Humanism verses Catholicism I will address my written material to you in the form of a letter. I will make the same points here that I will bring out when you and I debate this issue in spoken form in the public forum. According to the Catholic faith the church is the continuation of the Body of Christ. So the great gift of the church was given to us when the God-man stepped down from his omnipotence and became flesh. This is the gift of Incarnational Love that came “That all flesh might see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6)

Jesus instituted his church when he said to Peter: “Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. ” (Matt. 16:18) It was Paul who stressed that the church is the Body of Christ and that we are all members of his body interrelated to each other so that the eye cannot say to the hand I do not need you. It has been said that outside the church there is no salvation. But all who love and do good have baptism of desire so all belong to the church and each person in his or her uniqueness will live forever. This eternal life of every creature is humankind’s highest affirmation. Thus, Grant, as we begin our conversation together I thank you for agreeing to begin with eschatology or the theory and practise of life after death. That Holy Mother Church is God’s greatest gift since creation can be appreciated from many aspects as our debate will show. But that we might all live happily in love forever is I think the best way to begin appreciating the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Her belief in the eternal salvation for each is I will argue humankind’s highest affirmation as Nietzsche showed.

II. BODY
Grant, in order to explain the church’s view about the salvation of all in an eternal joy or love with God who is the love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit I will quote and explain 8 key passages about being saved by the God of Love from His Holiness, Benedict XVI’s book on Eschatology. The Catholic prays for the blessed dead and asks the blessed dead to pray for us. At the end of the Apostle’s Creed we say:
I believe in the Holy Spirit
In the holy Catholic Church
In the communion of saints
In the forgiveness of sins
and in life everlasting. Amen.
Thus the Catholic lives in the shamanic world of living with the spirits of our loved ones who have died. The Catholic sees all the dead as living and loving and overcoming their many hurt relations through purgatory or an intermediate state until the final resurrection at the end of the world.

(1) At the end of part one of his Eschatology Ratzinger writes that hope for all exists only where there is sheer love. He says:
Man with his ambiguous story of acceptance and rejection of grace is an acting subject in God’s saving plan, and it is on this basis that he inhabits time. He is an true subject in his own right, but not as one who would produce the Kingdom of God from his own resources. The “right” in which he is a subject he receives from the “Thou” of God. He possesses genuine subjecthood only because he has become a son. Divinization “emancipation” as a sharer in the Kingdom of God, is not a product but a gift. Sheer love can only be so. It is because entry into the Kingdom comes about through love that the Kingdom is hope. In a laboratory – which is how Ernest Bloch defined the world – there is nothing to hope for. Hope exists only where there is love. Since, in the crucified Christ, love prevailed and death fled vanquished, human hope can truly “spring eternal.” p. 66

And so Grant, we remember Pascal’s wager:
I can live my life as a wager
that there is a God or there is not a God.
If I am an atheist and win I win nothing.
If I am a theist and win I win everything.
If I am a theist and lose I lose nothing.
If I am an atheist and lose I lose everything.
Ratzinger does not say the atheist will lose everything. He says that in so far as the atheist loves and is loved he too will win all. Perhaps some people decided to become atheists because they thought like Pascal and were offended by the idea of a rewarder-punisher God who would exclude some from eternal bliss.
I Grant prefer to be on the God of Love and to live as loving a life as I can and I see prayer as a way of loving and being loved.

(2) Grant, Ratzinger goes on to further clarify the idea of eternal love for all by locating it in scripture and tradition. He writes;
In the light of these insights, it should be evident that the Bible did not turn a particular anthropology into dogma. Rather did it offer the Christology which flows from the resurrection as the one foundation for eschatology truly appropriate to faith. This foundation confers on thought the right and duty to draw on its own potential in order to illuminate the anthropological presuppositions and implications contained in the foundation itself. Starting out from this perception, the patristic age haltingly and the Middle Ages more self confidently used the instruments provided by Greek thinkers so as to grasp the meaning of the statement that we will not be stored up after death in caves and chambers like chattels, but clasped by that person whose love embraces us all. (p. 130)

(3) So Grant, four of the great questions we will be debating are: (1) why is there something rather than nothing? (2) Is there a God? (3) Are we free? and (4) Are we immortal? We are beginning with the last question first because humankind has dealt with death and the spirit world in all of its art since earliest shamanic times. After looking at life after death in scripture and tradition in general Ratzinger focuses on The Resurrection. He argues that given texts like I Cor. 15:20-28 the whole of creation will be saved. He writes:
That the resurrection state is quite different from our present conditions of life is resoundingly affirmed. What, in more actual terms, such anti-spiritualistic pneumatic realism may mean is less immediately obvious. And yet the claim that the whole of God’s creation, in whatever form, will enter upon its definitive salvation at the end of time is so palpable that any reflective systematization of the biblical data must do it justice… The early Western creed does not speak of ‘the resurrection of the dead’ but of the ‘resurrection of the flesh’… Thanks to its Jewish roots, this phrase indicates the salvation of the human creature, or of creation, in its entirety. p. 172.

(4) Continuing on Grant with Holy Mother Church’s teaching of a love for all that will save all Ratzinger relates this to the compassion of the Bodhi Sattva in Mahayana Buddhism. He writes;
The nature of love is always to be “for” someone. Love cannot, then, close itself against others or be without them so long as time, and with it suffering, is real. No one has formulated this insight more finely that Thérèse of Lisieux with here idea of heaven as the showering down of love towards all. But even in ordinary human terms we can say, How could a mother be completely and unreservedly happy so long as one of her children is suffering? And here we can point once again to Buddhism with its idea of the Bodhisattva who refuses to enter Nirvana so long as one human being remains in hell. p. 188

(5) Grant, our love for others has a natural longing for eternity. When we say: “I love you.” there is always in parenthesis after it: “forever”. Thus Ratzinger writes:
The fullness of salvation is not yet realized so long as that salvation is only certain by anticipation in God, falling short of even so much as one person who still suffers… Every human being exists in himself and outside himself: everyone exists simultaneously in other people. What happens in one individual has an effect upon the whole of humanity, and what happens in humanity happens in the individual. p. 190.

Grant, as members of the Body of Christ no man is an island. We are all part of the main. This Body of Christ which is Holy Mother Church will not be content until every creature is lovingly saved for ever in a paradise of growing love for each other. As love matures especially through prayer for all, it believes more and more that our love will be forever.

(6) Grant in the ancient Apostle’s Creed it is said that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. It may seem that he will condemn some to hell and reward some with heaven. But Ratzinger shows how scripture and tradition teach that all will be judged as good. Ratzinger writes:
In death a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth. He takes up that place which is truly his by right. The masquerade of living with its constant retreat behind posturings and fictions is now over. Man is what he is in truth. Judgment consists in this removal of the mask of death. The judgment is simply the manifestation of the truth. Not that this truth is something impersonal. God is truth; the truth is God; it is personal… Herein lies that redemptive transformation of the idea of judgment which Christian faith brought about. The truth which judges man has set out to save him. It has created a new truth for man. In love it has taken man’s place and, in this vicarious action, has given man a truth of a special kind, the truth of being loved by truth. p. 206

And so Grant, Eschatology is concerned with the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. His holiness is here telling us that judgment is so loving that all flesh will be saved. There is no hell. This is what Nietzsche calls humankind’s highest affirmation. The affirmation of a Yes and Amen for the external return of all existence.
(7) Grant, the next big point that Ratzinger makes about the love of Holy Mother Church for all of has has to do with the nature of our personhood. The church teaches that all persons are of equal worth, they are all interpersonal and each is unique. Because all are members of the church whether they know it or not we all depend on each other. As Ratzinger puts it:
We are ourselves only as being in others, with others and through others. Whether others curse us or bless us, forgive us and turn our guilt into love – this is all part of our destiny. The fact that the saints will judge means that encounter with Christ is encounter with his whole body. I come face to face with my own guilt vis-à-vis the suffering members of that body as well as with the forgiving love which the body derives from Christ its head…As Charles Péguy so beautifully put it: “I hope in you for me.”

So Grant, my guilt can hurt many, many others. My sins of commission and omission can bring much suffering to my closest loved ones and even to many members of Holy Mother Church I do not know. Likewise my love and prayer can bless and heal others. Ratzinger goes on to make a second point here. He writes:
Self-substituting love is a central Christian reality, and the doctrine of purgatory states that for such love the limit of death does not exist… II Maccabees 12:42-45 first makes this clear. This original “given” has never been in dispute between East and West. It was the Reformation which called it into question, and that in the face of what were in part objectionable and deformed practices.
Holy Mother Church teaches us to pray for the blessed dead and each little prayer can be a blessing for them. We also can ask them to pray for and thus build up our love in a continuing way with each other.

Grant, as Ratzinger comes to the end of his book on life after death he related a loving eternity for all of us to his concept of soul. He writes:
What gives rise to man’s longing for survival? Not the isolated I, but the experience of love. Love wills eternity for the beloved and therefore for itself. Immortality does not inhere in a human being but rests on a relation…“The soul” is our term for that in us which offers a foothold for this relation. Soul is nothing other than man’s capacity for relatedness with truth, and with love eternal, and in this way, we can get right the real order of priorities: the truth and love that we call “God” give man eternity, and because in the spirit and soul of man matter is integrated, matter attains in him to the fulfilled completeness of the resurrection. p. 259

So Grant, after we die Catholics believe that there will be two stages to our immortality. First, there will be the intermediate state of purgatory when we are all communally being healed from our lack of love. Then, at the end of this world there will be the resurrection of our flesh so that we will all love in glorious form with the Resurrected Christ.

III. CONCLUSION
So Grant, I have used many long quotations from Pope Benedict XVI to show that I am not just making up this greatest love story ever told. Ratzinger even quotes Nietzsche that “All joy will eternity, wills deep, deep eternity” and he continues “that there are some moments that should never pass away” (p. 94). Holy Mother Church is the Body of Christ and every fleshly member, it is believed, will live forever. This is why I argue that the Catholic Church which in its universality includes all flesh is the second greatest gift God has given us since creation.

Last year when I debated Horst Klaus he talked about an humanistic love. I like that. Whenever we love I think it is a moment that should never pass away. This is why I love Holy Mother Church who has given so much to me because she teaches that every loving creature in every loving moment will not only last forever but continue to grow in that love forever.

As I have studied various philosophies and various religions I have not found another that affirms so much. Therefore, I choose to be a Catholic so that I can love all persons even of other faiths forever.

Nov. 25 debate - Grant vs. the afterlife - Part 1


On Nov. 25 in Fonthill's St. Alexander's Church I debated Catholic Brock University professor David Goicoeecha on the existence, nature and meaning of the afterlife. We were very fortunate to have Justin Trottier from the Centre for Inquiry moderating the debate and he did an excellent job.

It was a lively event, and fairly well attended. I will post my own recap later, but if you want an overview of the night check out Justin's blog here: http://www.equalismactivism.com/?p=2151

For now I will post my opening remarks and then David's, along with our first rebuttals. The notes presented here were not used in full during the debate because of time constraints, and I actually used little of my own notes by way of a rebuttal, instead dealing with the subject matter as the night progressed. However, even though we both went off script, as there is no recording for the debate, the prepared notes is the best I can present there.

After opening remarks and first rebuttals, Justin invited each debater to ask the other a question. I asked David by what knowledge can he claim his Catholic view of the afterlife is the correct one, rather than any other believe by other religions. (He did not really answer the question, instead talked about his beliefs about the subject.) David in turn asked if I actually deny "emotional" evidence for god and the evidence. (uh, YES!). That was followed by questions from Justin. He asked David what Heaven is like - David's description was fairly vague, describing a heaven in is "pure love", that includes our pets, and maybe even Hitler (whom I was compared to. nice.) and that we, according to David, retain our individuality and can met up and chat. Justin asked me what kind of heaven might actually tempt me, and I was for a moment unable to answer. I had just never thought of such a thing before! I ultimately said that a heaven that was really not much different from our life in the here and now, with all its potential for great achievement learning, would probably tempt me.

I will discuss more about the debate shortly, but for the time being here is my opening remarks.

Philosopher’s Café Debate
The Undiscovered Country


There is one thing we can say for certain about human beings – we are often fearful creatures. Few of our emotions can motivate us to action, for better or for worse, than fear. Indeed, the seemingly endless of list of what we are afraid of can fill catalogues and keeps psychologists pay cheques rolling in.

Tonight, we are going to talk about what might be our greatest, most primal fear. Death. The inescapable fact that each and everyone us will come to a point, probably not of our own choosing, when our hearts will stop, the electrical activity in our brains will cease and we will grow cold. Life is a fatal condition and as the old turn of phrase goes, no one gets out of it alive.

My conclusion is that there is no reason to believe any of the dogmas of traditional theology and, further, that there is no reason to wish that they were true. Man, in so far as he is not subject to natural forces, is free to work out his own destiny. The responsibility is his, and so is the opportunity.
-Bertrand Russell

How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, and tonight I’m going to talk about the manifestations of our fear of death – religious notions of the afterlife – what they mean and what they say about us and what we value.

This is the second in what is a planned series of debates between David and myself. Our first debate, some months ago, discussed religion in a very broad manner. In the future we will lock swords over ideas about the existence of god, why the universe exists, sex and the church and nature of evil. Tonight, we’re examining an idea that lies at the heart of nearly every religion the minds of human beings have created – the afterlife.

When David proposed this particular subject, he suggested an approach that didn’t just examine the idea of life after death, but that it placed in the context of the Catholic Church. This is to say, placed in a broader context of why he is a devote Catholic and why I am not.

If I were asked to prove that Zeus and Poseidon and Hera and the rest of the Olympians do not exist, I should be at a loss to find conclusive arguments. An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.
-Bertand Russell

It is, then perhaps worth drawing my line in the sand early: I’m an atheist, which means I don't believe the supernatural claims of religion are true. More importantly I’m also an anti-theist - which is to say that I am rather glad it isn't true. There are atheists who will say they wished they had the faith to believe in a god, or to believe the vision of the world as laid out in holy scriptures where true, but they just cannot believe it. This is decidedly not the case with me. As I say, I am rather glad it isn't true and if it were I am convinced we would all be the poorer for it.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I will address, albeit briefly, the subtitle David put to my talk tonight: Why I am not a Catholic.

Simply put, I am not a Catholic for the same reason I am not a Protestant Christian. Or Buddhist. Or Mulism. Or Jew. Or a Mormon, a Scientologist, a Hindu or Jedist. There is simply no reason whatsoever, once the supernatural claims of religion are held up to the harsh light of scrutiny, to believe any of it. There is not a god we’ve ever dreamed up that has the slightest bit of evidence to support a claim of its existence – never mind the assortment of devils, demi-gods, angels and demons that all these religions would have us believe exist. Heavens, Hells, limbos and reincarnated souls make for great mythological story telling, but they haven’t the slightest basis in fact.

From an evidentiary point of view Jesus stands equally with Thor, with Zeus, and any other god ever believed in. I cannot disprove any of these exist, but then neither can David. He does not believe Thor exists, but cannot demonstrate the thunder god isn’t real. That which can be declared without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Indeed, what should be clear to everyone tonight is that I have the easiest of jobs this evening. The burden of proof lays squarely upon David’s shoulders to demonstrate to us that his notion of an afterlife exists. Evidence matters. Facts matter. Personal affirmations or appeals to ideas that happen to make us feel better do not, in any way, demonstrate the existence of life after death. Either these things are true or they are not and those who wish to make such grand claims about the nature of the universe carry a heavy burden of proof indeed. As the great scientist Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

House: "Rational arguments don't usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people."
BigLove: "You're an atheist."
House: "Only on Christmas and Easter. The rest of the time, it doesn't really matter."
Big Love: "Where's the fun in that? A finite, un-mysterious universe—"
House: "It's not about fun! It's about the truth."
-House MD: episode #402
Beyond the fact that religion exists in an evidentiary vacuum, there are other considerations that turn me away from faith. They often contain, at their cores, ideas, orders, edicts and commands that are immoral, unethical, and irrational and can be extraordinarily harmful even when wielded by people who do not mean to inflict suffering upon others. I could go on at length about many religions, but tonight’s subject turns up Christianity and its oldest institution, the Roman Catholic Church, so I will limit my comments accordingly.

This is little more than scapegoating and is in direct violation of every sense of justice we possess. The punishment of someone for the crimes of another is regarded, rightly, by our society as one of the most immoral acts possible. At its most basic formulation, our notion of ethics and morals depends entirely upon personal responsibility. Without it, ethical action would be impossible. Yet this is exactly what the Christian scheme of salvation does – it extinguishes personal responsibility in favor a cruel, vicarious redemption. You can be guilty for nothing, responsible for nothing, were this to be true. In Catholic thinking, everyone is “good” regardless of what they have done and can be purified in purgatory – a kind of supernatural processing station where your crimes are burned away before you get to go to heaven.

What then becomes of justice? Of ethics? Are they not then, where this tale to be true, little more than a sham? It is made all the worse because the ultimate crime that Jesus was condemned to torture and murder for was the disobedience of an entirely fictional man and woman an the equally fictional garden. In other words, a man was executed for a metaphor and according to Catholic teachings – one need only read the official Vatican Catechism (sec. 74 to 78) to see it clearly – everyone is born wicked because of said fiction! It strains credulity to take any of this seriously.

Call me old fashioned if you will, the idea of mandatory, compulsory love has always struck me as a rather sickly one, or even a sinister one, especially when it originates as an injunction from a godhead of whom we are also supposed to be afraid. To be ordered to love someone of whom you have to be in dread is a form of sadomasochism. It’s the essence of Orwell’s Big Brother god. It’s not enough to obey, you have to love the obeisance as well. It’s the seedbed of the totalitarian. Love cannot be exacted.
-Christopher Hitchens

A related Christian idea that is no less pernicious is the concept of mandatory love. You MUST love the Christian god. It is not an option. Catholic teaching makes it very clear that if one rejects the love of this god, one will be damned for eternity for it. The catechism (sec. 218 and 219) make it very clear that if you refuse to love god, torture in perdition awaits you.

Consider: what kind of love is this that is offered with this sort of threat? “Love me or else you will be denied happiness and will suffer.” The demand that one love you, that loving you is mandatory and you will be punished if not done, is not any kind of love at all. Love is either offered freely, without strings, or it is a worthless.

Moreover, the bible makes it clear you are also to fear god. This is a god who, despite Christians saying god is “pure love” and the like, spends most of the Old Testament committing or ordering genocides, the taking of slaves, and the butchering of children. One wonders why Christians persist on saying their god of love is the same god of the Hebrew bible who ordered the massacre of the Canaanites and the Amalekites.

There are many other reasons why I pointedly reject the Catholic Church that I will not go on at length about here. Of its sometimes barbaric past of inquisitions, crusades and exterminations of perceived enemies (including the burning of the 17th century scientist Giordano Bruno, the silencing of Galileo or the Vatican ordered annihilation of the Cathars) I need say little. Modern incidents of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and subsequent cover ups and the continuing effort to prevent the use of condoms to fight the spread of HIV in Africa where millions are suffering because of the virus, provides all the evidence one requires of the moral and ethic problems of this ancient institution – problems fueled by a theology divorced from human suffering.

What then, in the light of all this, is a non-believer such as myself to make of Christian claims about life and death? Especially when there is no evidence to accept these claims as true?

Heaven was once believed to be “up there” in the sky someplace. Today we can see in the depths of inter galactic space and no heaven has been spotted, leaving apologists to claim that heaven is somewhere outside our universe and thus forever removed from scrutiny. However utterly convenient; Claim you speak a undeniable truth which, it just so happens, cannot be demonstrated to be true in any manner, which in turn is held up as evidence of its truth. One of my favorite philosophers, Thomas Hobbes, had little patience for this sort of talk and in his famous work Leviathan put this way:

“The universe, the whole mass of things that are, is corporeal, that is to say, body, and hath the dimensions of magnitude, length, breadth and depth. Every part of the universe is ‘body’ and that which is not ‘body’ is no part of the universe, and because the universe is all, that which is no part of it is nothing, and consequently nowhere.”

As I thought about how to approach tonight’s debate, a line from one of the greatest plays ever penned that has stuck with me since I was a teenager came to mind again and again. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character meditates on death and the hereafter. Hamlet ends up calling death “The undiscover'd country from whose bourn; No traveler returns.”

Hamlet was right. We know that we die and for all intents and purposes we cease to exist. To say anything beyond that is simply wish-thinking and mythological story telling. No one has ever come back from the dead with photos of the afterlife, there is no evidence than one exists. In other words, if somehow we do survive our own deaths, we know absolutely nothing about it.

Hamlet was right. We know that we die and for all intents and purposes we cease to exist. To say anything beyond that is simply wish-thinking and mythological story telling. No one has ever come back from the dead with photos of the afterlife, there is no evidence than one exists. In other words, if somehow we do survive our own deaths, we know absolutely nothing about it.

What then of the Christian’s notions of heaven and hell, and specific Catholic notions like purgatory and, the now recently defunct concept of limbo?

In its basic and most primitive formulation, the Christian afterlife is all about obedience to authority and being rewarded or punished for how well one follows orders. Heaven is a place for those who love god and do what he wants and hell, for those who don’t, is often portrayed a place where one is tortured for all time. There is something appealing in this view, particular the notion of a cosmic, eternal justice. Even if you think you don’t posses that dark a side, I think we would be hard pressed to find anyone of you whose skin doesn’t tingle a little at the thought of a place of torture where Adolf Hitler or Paul Bernardo will spend entirety.

However, it’s not as simple as all that, particularly not once you engage specifically Catholic notions of life after death.

Careful reading of the Bible shows that even the most heinous acts of barbarism is not necessarily sufficient warrant to be sent to hell. Even the most horrible of acts can be forgiven if only one believes properly. Indeed, disbelief is held up as the one really unpardonable sin. In the texts it is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is the one thing that cannot be forgiven. In Catholic teachings, everyone gets to go to heaven so long as they follow the commandment of mandatory love.

What heaven is exactly isn’t entirely clear, at least from a Catholic point of view. Some protestant sects imagine a place that sounds like Oz, with gold paved streets and people running about in perfect, ageless bodies. The Catholic catechism describes only a state of being in which one heaps glory upon god – in other words it sounds like the kind of place where you spend all your time telling the boss what a great guy he is.

It is for this reason that Christopher Hitchens describes heaven as a kind of celestial North Korea, where your only ambition is to worship and praise Dear Leader. All notions of human achievement and moral and ethical responsibility are erased and replaced with what sounds rather like a powerful and pleasing bromide. But it’s a non-existence bereft of anything human.

Given that someone had to be tortured to death for your alleged wrong doings for you to even be there, and that are required to spend entirety worshiping an all powerful authority that cannot be questioned or challenged, heaven sounds like the abode of a vain dictator. It’s described as a place or state of being of ultimate happiness, but like the idea of “love” in this theological context, it would be an empty happiness where it to be true.

Still, as prosaic an existence as that sounds, it might still be preferable to being tortured forever in Hell.

Of course Christian apologists, including Catholics like David, often ignore hell these days, no doubt recognizing the how ugly, petty and unjust the concept is. Still, it is worth noting that in on March 27, 2007 in Rome the present pope made it very clear that he believes Hell is a real place and decried the fact that is not fashionable to say so. "Jesus came to tell us that He wants us all in heaven and that hell - of which so little is said in our time - exists and is eternal for those who close their hearts to His love,” Pope Benedict XVI said.
Hell consists in the eternal damnation of those who die in mortal sin through their own free choice. The principal suffering of hell is eternal separation from God in whom alone we can have the life and happiness for which we were created and for which we long. Christ proclaimed this reality with the words, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire” (Matthew 25:41)…. God, while desiring “all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9), nevertheless has created the human person to be free and responsible; and he respects our decisions. Therefore, it is the human person who freely excludes himself from communion with God if at the moment of death he persists in mortal sin and refuses the merciful love of God.
-The Catechism of the Catholic Church

To make the matter plain, let’s review this essential, an absurd notion, of love and what would consign you to hell.

1) You are born sick, with the taint of original sin because of the crime of a man and woman who did not exist committed in a garden that is nothing more than mythology.
2) No matter what you do with your life, no matter the good you might do for your fellow creatures, this taint can only be removed by accepting the “love” and “forgiveness” of god as the Catholic doctrine understands it.
3) Refusal to do so before you die means you shuffle off this mortal coil with your sins intact. As such you are sent to some manner of hell where you are damned for all time.

The (Christian) story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is impossible for us to know, as it is for us to be assured that the book in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear.
-Thomas Paine

So a doctor who is an atheist and anti-theist, who pointedly rejects what Jesus stands for and refuses to love a god, would be sent to hell. The serial killer who repents and loves Jesus gets rewarded. The moral weakness of such a view is obvious.

Even if one gets past all these objections, and can cook up a theology that is devoid of the petty and vulgar vindictiveness of these concepts of heaven and hell, there is still a great objection to answer: by what information, by what knowledge, can David claim his preferred belief accurately reflects what happens after we die?

The fact is that he can no more disprove Valhalla or Hades than he can demonstrate his heaven even exists. And that being so, why expend such energy in worrying about it?

The idea of an afterlife amounts to a waste of our mental energies, save for those ideas that lead directly to the suffering of others. Given that there is a dearth of evidence to even hint at heavens and hells, and the theology irrational to say the least, we can safely dispense with the notion.

What then do we make of death? Perhaps we can take a page from the samurai whose devotion to Zen hinged upon the fact that Zen dwelled heavily upon death. Those who followed Zen Buddhism mediated upon their own death constantly. A samurai was to keep the idea of his own mortality, likely to come in a gruesome manner on the battlefield, on his mind at all times. It might sound a tad grim, but it served to reinforce an idea that death is but a consequence of life. We cannot avoid it and we likely cannot choose the manner in which it comes to us. But we can choose how we face it.

From this point of view, one Epicurus likely would have found some degree of kinship with, death is nothing to us. We die. It’s a fact. But what really matters is not how we die or what we might fancy happens afterwards.

What matters is how we live and the legacy we leave behind.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Atheism ain't no faith.

I am reluctant to use the word atheist to describe my own unshakable 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.

Jonathon Miller


There is a movement afoot in some atheist/humanist/whatever you want to call non believing circles that I find, well frankly, quite stupid.

There are more than a few of my fellow non-believers - fellows only because we don't believe in the supernatural, not because we belong to some international organization of atheists - who feel that as a bunch of people who don't subscribe to any religion of any sort we should still be afforded the same recognition as believers in every aspect of life.

Now, in one sense this is a worth while goal in the political arena. Non-believers should and could run for office, and not be discriminated against for the lack of belief in politics or business. Ensuring equally opportunity for everyone, regardless of religion or non-belief, is a core value of secularism.

However, the stupid raises its ugly head when atheists start to claim that our non-belief is the same as, equal too, or otherwise indistinguishable from religious belief, and therefore should have ALL the same exceptions made for us that are made for the believer.

Case in point: a recent episode of the Micheal Coren Show. For those who do not know, Coren is a writer, tv show host, Christian apologist and polemicist. His show, which covers political and religious matters runs from the mind numbingly dull to the truly interesting depending on his guests. Coren himself is a brilliant debater and few of his guests can match the force of his arguments, even when his argument is full of holes. (I've always wanted to test my rhetorical skills against his.) More often than not, I disagree with Coren. But on this particular subject, I was forced to agree.

One of the subjects of this particular program was religious exemptions for university students - basically students have who religious obligations or a festival or whatever can get an exemption from a professor to take an exam at another date and so on. On the panel was one of Canada's leading public non-believers Justin Trottier whose argument exemplified the kind of massive blunder I am talking about.

To be fair to Trottier, he has done a lot - maybe more than anyone in Canada - to raise the public profile of atheists and encourage us to stand up and be counted and not allow the religious to bully us into silence. But on this particular point, I think he was wronger than two left shoes.

He argued that a atheist student might want to attend say, a scientific conference, and that should be given the same exemption as attending a religious service. Coren, who believes in a privileged position of Christianity in society, said this was nonsense because a scientific conference is not at all the as a religious ceremony. Trottier tried to say that for the atheist it would be - but it ain't. It just ain't.

The problem, of course, is that as an atheist, I have no religious belief in anything. "Faith" in most contexts is a dirty word for me because it implies belief without evidence, which in turn results in irrational decision making which as the potential to cause serious harm. The claim that a scientific conference is equal in the eyes of an atheist to a religious service is barking mad. I, and most atheists I know, do not "believe" in science the way that a Christian believes in a god. I don't have faith in science, scientists, or regard their work as immutable and not to be questioned or challenged. Atheists have no holy books, no devotional requirements or sacraments. Nor do we need or want them!!

A Christian or a Jew or Muslim will have some day or another that they consider holy and according to their faith have to do certain things on said day. I probably consider just about all of those reasons to be irrational in the extreme. Doesn't matter. I don't respect the belief, but rather the right of people to believe. Some allowance in a secular society needs to be made for that.

But for science? For a conference? Yah, no. I have no devotional reason to attend a conference. A student could ask for flexibility and might well be deserving of it. But the fact is there is no such thing as a atheist equivalent of a religious service. And to invent one means one is creating a quasi-religion for the irreligious and implying that science ought to be worshiped - which is just daft.

I have argued elsewhere this is the problem with "atheist churches" - groups that ape a church but slap an atheist label on it. An atheist church is like the vegetarian who cannot admit what his canine teeth are for and so makes fake-meat like food stuffs to stand in for the real thing.

One of the true joys of atheism is that it frees you from the inane and archaic ceremonies of thousands of years ago that make no rational sense. Wine into blood may make for decent poetry, but as a physical fact is completely insane. Nothing drives me more crazy than claims by the religious that I have "faith" just like they do, when the fact is I don't. Not even a little.

We don't need, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out more than once, to ape the structure of religion, or gather once a week to remind ourselves of the fundamental irrationality of religious faith. I understand the need for community, but it can be done without trying to claim for atheism equivalents for everything religion is. That is, in its way, as foolish as the believer who looks for atheist parallels to their religious belief and ends up using such thick-skulled canards as "atheists believe everything came from nothing" or "atheists worship Darwin." Because do to that would start to make an institution out of atheism and turn it into what those so many theists want it to be - a religion.

Atheism ain't no faith!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Get in the Sack for Sept 6, 2009 - Pope Benny


Right now I would take homeopaths and I'd put them in a big sack with psychics, astrologers and priests. And I'd close the top of the sack with string, and I'd hit them all with sticks...And when someone asks the big questions - I don't know what happens after a I die, or what happens when my loved ones die, or how do I stop myself from dying - the big questions and they give you a nice bullshit answer and you say 'Well, do you have any evidence for that? and they say "There's more to life than evidence". Get in the fucking sack.
-Dara O'Brian


It's almost embarrassing to read the ongoing debate between atheists and theists sometimes these days. The extent of ridiculous hyperbole sometimes makes my brain hurt to the point where my ears nearly bleed. This is especially true of statements may by some theists, particularly those of the fundamentalist Christian variety, about what atheism is and what it means.

Take Eddie Snipes, a writer for the Examiner, whose four-part series of articles on evolution is maybe the staggeringly display of mind numbing stupidity I have read in a while. His description of Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution, genetics and atheists is so twisted that when I read it I thought I had slipped into a parallel reality where words had totally different meanings. Consider this gem from this series called "Natural Selection - Atheism Trojan Horse." (oh and please note he hasn't discussed natural selection that remotely reflects science and appears to not have any real clue what the Trojan Horse is or what it is a metaphor of.):
The evolutionary theory was born out of a desire to provide an explanation of the origin of life without a Creator. Since the goal is to distance themselves from God, disproving the argument will never change the mind of an atheist. Their primary goal is to remove God so when one argument fails, an alternative version is formed. Let me also clarify that many call themselves atheists because they have only been exposed to the crafty arguments of atheism and are not aware that the evidence contradicts the doctrines of atheism and agrees with the scriptures.

When I refer to atheism I am assuming that the reader understands that I am referring to those who are in rejection of the truth and will not be persuaded in the face of any evidence. Many will be open to the truth of scripture when they realize that they have been hoodwinked by the one-sided propaganda that is being passed off as reason and free thought.
To point out everything that is wrong with these two paragraphs would take an essay in and of itself. Just discussing how Darwin's studies that resulted in the theory of evolution by natural selection was a justification to prove "atheism" and reject "the truth" could fill an entire university paper. The fact is that, despite what Eddie and others might say, Darwin did not set out to disprove theism any more than astronomers set out to disprove Bigfoot. Darwin, like all good scientists worked within the scientific method that seeks natural explanations for natural phenomenon. And if you think "god did it" works as a scientific explanation, consider how happy would be if that was your doctor's explanation for why contracted a serious illness, gave you a prayer book and sent you on your way. Antibotics are for the heathens!

However painful it would be to read all of Eddie's postings and tear them down here to put him in the sack, there appeared a far worthy subject who makes Eddie's musings on atheism seem like the zenith of intellectual activity by comparison. The present Pope of the Catholic Church.

Now, truthfully, one expects more from a pope than the level of mental knuckle dragging found in some corners of the Examiner. After all, Pope Benedict is a well educated man, leading a church that is well over a thousand years old. But alas, that appears to be much to hope for.

One of the more pitiful theist arguments is what is sometimes called the moral argument for god. I have dealt with this a few times on the Handbook, so I won't get into a full discussion here. But the argument basically says that because there are morals, there must be a god. The low brow version of this argument says "if you don't believe in god, you are an unethical, evil schmuck." Essentially the idea here is that if you reject believe in a god (usually this means a specific god like Jesus.) then you are only left with your pitiful, evil, useless human mind and emotions to sort out what is right and wrong. So corrupt are we as a species that if we did not have a Bible or Koran we would simply run about killing and raping each other at will....and probably would not regard said killing or raping as particularly bad.

As Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens often point out, however, the person who says they would be a wanton killer without the 10 Commandants has revealed more about themselves than the content of a holy book. The fact of the matter is that religion or a belief in a god is not a requirement for moral or ethical action and, indeed, as I have pointed out before, theistic concepts of good and evil in the context of a all power god are, at best muddy.

However, the usual "whats to stop you from raping people if you don't believe in god" got an original, if just as stupid, spin recently thanks to the Pope.

During a recent speech, the Pope declared that environmental damage caused by humans is the fault of - wait for it - ATHEISM!!!!
Is it not true that inconsiderate use of creation begins where God is marginalized or also where his existence is denied? If the human creature's relationship with the Creator weakens, matter is reduced to egoistic possession, man becomes the ‘final authority,’ and the objective of existence is reduced to a feverish race to possess the most possible.

That's right folks - unless you believe in the Christian god and the Catholic church you are unable to figure out that running about and torching rain forests or making gorrila vests is a bad thing.

The hilarious part of this is that Christian environmentalism - that is environmentalism that uses the Bible as its principle justification - is a relatively new thing and is largely found not in Catholic circles but in emerging evangelical moments in the United States (which has caused an rift within the American evangelical communities). The first line of that paragraph is more reflective of the changing moral zeitgeist than it is of what a sky god apparently wants or the moral failings of non-theists.

For most of the history of the Christian faith, proper treatment of the environment was simply not a question. Well, why would it? It wasn't really a question for anyone was it? The environmental movement, as we have it today, doesn't get going until the 1970s.

So what does the bible say about the environment and how humans should use it? Well, since the bible contains zero scientific information (you know, because its authors knew nothing about science and, in any case, their purpose was to write a book of religion, not science) the answer is not much. However, in the Old Testament were are told god gives humans - or more particularly men - dominion over the Earth. For centuries the usual interpretation of this was not the present day spin the pope is using of environmental stewardship. That is a modern concept driven not by religion but by environmental and political activism. No, the most common view of the bible in this regard, and one that you still find in more right wing circles is that god gave the planet to us and said "Do whatever the hell you want!"

More seriously, the Bible does not really provide any basis for the protection of the environment at all. The texts do not urge us to protect animals from extinction or preserve our water quality. They make it clear that we are here for a good time, not a long time. This planet and everything on it is a mere test, the appetizer before the main course. This entire world will vanish in a bloody Apocalypse in which Jesus will return the earth will burn and a new world will be put in the old one's place. Powerful mythological stuff, but if one takes it seriously protecting the environment would seem daft. I mean, why protect this lot if its all going to be wiped out in war and fire anyway? What's the point? Jesus is on his way back to open up the can on everyone isn't he?

On the other hand, if one understands that human beings are merely one species among countless others, and that despite our powerful technology the worse we can do is destroy ourselves not the planet; and if we realize that our fate, as a species, depends entirely on the survival of our ecosystem, then protecting the environment becomes a critical matter of self preservation. Contrary to what the pope claims from his palace in Rome, a world view without a god makes protecting the environment and the other creatures we share the world with all the more important.

So Pope - get in the damn sack.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The six inches in front of your face....

A sports movie speech, but nevertheless a reflection of it means to make an effort on human terms, our own terms, and to hold our fates in our own hands without looking to anyone, or anything else.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Plato, gorillas and the morals of the heathen - a response to Shane Meehan

If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D'Alembert, D'Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.
-Thomas Jefferson

Human behavior is a slippery beast. We are at once rational and logical while being irrational and stupid. We're creative and destructive. We can be beautifully and honestly dishonest while being terribly and brutally truthful. Honourable and horrible. Sometimes we are at the mercy of forces that seem beyond our direct control - consider how an emotion like love can cause an otherwise rational man to do things he otherwise would consider ridiculous.

Getting a firm grip on the hows and whys our own behavior is sometimes like trying to grab a handful of quicksilver. Trying to come up with rules that suit every circumstance of human behavior is just as difficult. Life often seems like a perpetual series of trade offs between equally lousy choices. Moral and ethical rules that seem to be iron clad can, under the right circumstances, seem hopelessly out of date or completely useless. If there is such a thing as an absolute it is that there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to human behavior.

Oh we try to create to rules that answer all situations don't we? Bushido, the Ten Commandments, philosophy, legal codes and the like all try to predict future behaviors, decide which are permissible and which are not and remedy them when required. More primitive efforts to codify morals and ethics, like the texts of the Bible or the laws the Spartans, tend to be hopelessly rigid or naive in a modern context. The reason modern legal codes are so complicated is because we are so complicated and tend to get more complicated and confusing all the time. The moral zeitgeist changes as we change. It has always been this way.

Nevertheless, theists often try to distill human activity down to rather low common denominators that can be easily answered with a couple of simple rules. And in a world where the moral and ethical relevancy of the Bible fades every year, religious conservatives are deeply worried. You see it all the time in the blogosphere, Youtube or television. I've lost track of how many times fundamentalists have bemoaned the state of modern morals.

Beyond those who ape the Jerry Fawell's of the world - wailing and gnashing their hypocritical teeth against feminists, homosexuals, or anyone who don't accept their bronze age view of humanity - there are those theists who simply cannot understand how anyone could act in a moral or ethical manner without their religion. It's a kind of thinking that betrays, it seems to me, an obvious and pathetic narcissism. But it also demonstrates, when examined closely, why theism, particularly of the Abrahamic variety, fails as immutable moral and ethical systems.

A really good example of this naive approach to morals can be found in Shane Meehan, who writes for the Examiner website as the Phoenix Protestant Examiner. In his most recent entry "Can atheists be moral?", he riffs on a common and tired theist attack on atheists - without the Bible, human beings cannot be moral. Atheists do not believe the Bible is the word of the Christian god and, as such, have no means upon which to act morally. Therefore, atheists are incapable of moral action. Lacking any belief in a "objective" morality, atheists believe that anything goes and anything can be justified. Human beings change their mind, therefore there is no "good" without someone telling us what the good is. Meehan uses his version of an argument that usually take the form of: "If you don't believe in god's moral law, why is it wrong for me to murder or rape you?"

I've addressed the this sort of theist approach to morality before, and pointed out how the entire notion of an "objective" morality fails by it's own definitions. I will not repeat my entire argument here, so feel free to read it, but there is one part that is worth repeating here as it addresses the core of what Meehan is arguing:


In the dialogue Euthyphro, Plato poses the question this way: “Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?”

If the first conclusion is true then the entire moral argument for god is rendered inert. It would imply that god orders that which is intrinsically moral – and if that is so then what makes those standards moral has nothing to do with god. He merely recognizes their moral character. Therefore there is no extra-human source of morality, or if there is, it isn’t god.

If the second is true, then morality is not objective at all as the theist defines it. It is an extra human morality, but not objective. The whims of human beings are replaced by the whims of a supernatural agency. Anything and everything god orders is moral by definition. That means that any horrible act can be justified simply by saying “god said so.”

This argument, if accepted, leaves the theist – particularly Abrahamic believers – in particular moral pickle. Take the often cited Christian idea that god is “love.” He is omi-benevolent and does issue orders we recognize as moral such as “thou shalt not kill” or “thou shalt not bear false witness.” Some Christians, for example, will go so far as to say that god would never issue a command that was not moral.

Well, even a glance at the Bible raises some serious questions. University of Michigan philosophy professor Elizabeth Anderson in her essay “If God is dead, then everything is permitted?” points out that “if we accept biblical inerrancy, I’ll argue, we must conclude that much of what we take to morally evil is in fact morally permissible and even required.”


Meehan goes off the rails in his opening paragraph in which he says: "Having the benefit of the Bible and the ten commandments as a guide, I struggle [sic] to see where the atheist might get his morality from because it is not externally revealed to him in any way." This is extremely telling. Meehan is suggesting that we, as a species are too damn dumb to figure out for ourselves what is right or wrong, what is ethical or not. Mind you, he is unable to demonstrate the Bible was just written by people like every other book ever written.

(It also begs the question: does he only think some things are moral or immoral because it says so in the Bible? What does he do about those things upon which the text is silent?)

He also is implying here that ethics and morals are impossible without this revelation. A simple examination of human culture shows this is not true. The samurai possessed a highly organized and well defined ethical and moral code. It clearly defined what actions could or could not be taken and why. They organized their entire lives around the code of Bushido - which does not appeal at all to a supreme sky god that dictated it, never mind Jesus. It was a code that developed over time and with experience. Nevermind the ethical and moral philosophies of Greece which did not depend on revelation but human reason.

Which brings us to Meehan's MASSIVE whopper of a mistake when he launches into an attack on humanism and, unknowingly, on utilitarianism (which by his blog he confuses as one in the same thing.) He suggests that humanism/utilitarianism is unworkable because what is constitutes "harm" is subjective. Like emotional harm when a marriage falls apart:

So, how might the humanist view adultery? If we are not breaking the law, we have to examine if it does harm to another. Again, this comes down to perceived emotional harm based on breach of trust. Since the harm done is merely hurt feelings it is difficult to establish as true harm.
Makes you wonder if the boy has lived a sheltered life. Emotional damage and extreme emotional stress is the definition of harm. No thinking atheist would think otherwise. The demise of a relationship is not, in most circumstances, about "hurt feelings" in the trivial manner in which Meehan presents it. In the case of adultery, the emotional harm it causes to the faithful party (assuming there is one) is very real and from a utilitarian perspective would therefore be unethical. However, Meehan tries to imply that the dissolution of a marriage itself is damaging to society at large - "let no man put asunder" and all that. And this is what I was talking about before about rigid and naive ethical rules. The fact is that like many things, human relationships are ugly grey areas. Sometimes, as tragic as it can be, one person simply doesn't want to be with the other and no amount of wishful thinking or religious belief in the divine approval will change that. Saying its fundamentally immoral or unethical for a marriage to break up would leave people trapped in forced or unhappy relationships - which in of itself causes emotional harm.

He heads down a similar garden path when it comes to telling lies. After all, the Bible counsels us to not bear false witness. Meehan treats lies as though they are all equal and that not telling the truth is fundamentally unethical or immoral. He says that a humanist would have no issue with lying to protect one self from getting into trouble because, well, the lie doesn't harm anyone. Except from most humanist ethical thought and utilitarian ethical thought, if the liar had done something to harm another, and then lied about it, the lie is part and parcel of the original action that caused harm....and would be regarded as unethical.

Moreover, honesty is regarded as good because we want to be dealt with honestly by others.
The Greeks had a basic moral and ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone.

In any case, Meehan's "revealed" ethics cannot grapple with even simple problems. Let's borrow from Plato's Republic for a moment and consider a friend who has loaned you a knife. In the time since you borrowed it, your friend has become depressed and it seems as though he wants to kill himself. Clearly returning the knife at this point would not the best idea. He asks if you have the knife and demands it back as it is his property. It would be perfectly ethical at this point to say you do not have it. Yes, it is a lie, but at the same time, you are keeping a dangerous weapon out of the hands of your suicidal friend. The bronze age, black and white morals that Meehan suggests allows for no such subtle thinking. To be consistent he would have to not only say he had the knife, but return it. Thou shalt not covet they nieghbours goods, remember?

Also, he oddly links humanist philosophy (although he does not really understand that humanism has many branches and does not have a single "code" akin to the Ten Commandments that all atheists follow) with the theory of evolution. Humanism, as an ethical philosophy, goes back to thinkers like Epicurus, Thales, Xeonphanes, and others in ancient Greece. Moreover, humanism as a modern political/ethical philosophy emerged in Europe until around 100 years before Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. While it is true that most atheists see links between humanism philosophy and evolutionary science, humanism as a school of thought did not depend upon or lead to evolution as Meehan suggests.

However, if he did understand evolutionary science at all, he's understand that morality/ethics increasingly appears to be a biological drive similar to language or sex. We know, from observations of our closest genetic relatives like chimps and gorillas (Meehan makes a gross error by suggesting our closest evolutionary relatives are monkeys!), we see social creatures that possess a rudimentary, if very familiar, ethical sense - all without religious texts. Without it, the kind of group cohesion that enables them to survive would be impossible. Indeed, without a such a sense our own species would not have got very far. It may be a sense that originally emerged to foster in-group cooperation and has since become something far more complicated in our case, but there is no denying that it is there - sans a holy scripture.

Which brings me to my final point about Meehan's train wreck of an exploration into ethical philosophy and science - Meehan tries to suggest that adultery would never be considered "bad" by atheists because our closest evolutionary cousins (referring erroneously to monkeys not apes) engage in"rampant, undiscerning pro-creation". They do it, he says, why can't we if it is good from an evolutionary standpoint. Well, I hate to break his bubble (not really) but the mating strategies of most animals - including humans and the great apes - is the opposite of "undiscerning." I'd go on about just how utterly wrong Meehan is when it comes to discussing evolution, but it kinda gets mean. So I will leave it here for now.

It just goes to show what my best friend's mother used to like to say - a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.