Religion and its worthlessness; with special reference to Christianity Monday, Jun 21 2010 

I would like to take some time to share with you some thoughts on this topic, and I’d like to preface this carefully.

The inherent value of religion lies in its veracity. Quite simply without any hint of veracity, the stories and exhortations of religion are reduced to the same position as any other literary construction or myth with the same sort of value for wisdom and knowledge. Thus, when we speak of the exodus and the other stories of the Bible one must either recognize that they have [a] a direct truth value and therefore an empirical, didactic value in and of themselves that sets them apart from other literary constructs without such veracity, or [b] a value of wisdom unrelated to its value of truth, which reduces such wisdom to the forms that we may derive from the Iliad, the Aeneid, Beowulf, and other integral, formative works of literature that so beautifully and perceptively express the human condition.

Thus, we may discuss the veracity of religion, from its higher claims to its basic historical accuracy, and ultimately this is what defines us and our position, for it is the position of any honest human being to embrace what he views to be the truth, irrespective of its value as regards hope and any arbitrary ideal of ‘goodness’.

However what I would like to present to you at this point is what I view to be the relative worthlessness of religion outside of its claims of veracity. That is, if I may, to discuss religion (and specifically Christianity) on its own terms, and to interrogate its inherent value outside claims of truth and constructed realities. I find that, outside of the mere question of veracity that surrounds the Bible, it carries, if it is true in its entirety, many highly disagreeable implications, and here are some of them as I see them.

If you can I’d ask you to forgive the concentration on Christianity as well as the length of this opening post, the former seems more relevant to this forum of discussion and the latter is unavoidable. In all of this I work, as well, with the assumptions that, in such an issue, God is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient.

The Bible, in the Christian ethos, is predicated on the sinful nature of humanity. Humanity are created with a predisposition to sin, immorality and evil, and are thus deserving of eternal punishment, however by the grace of God, Christ was sacrificed in order to pay for our sins, and so anyone who accepts Christ as their Saviour may transcend the punishment that their sinful nature rightfully demands and proceed into heaven.

However I find it incredibly difficult to empathize with an omnipotent creator, entirely and supremely aware of every consequence of his mightiest action into the infinite corners of the universe, who then creates men with a predisposition to sin and blames them for it. I find that the idea of free will does not compromise, in the slightest, the atrocity of this sequence of events; quite plainly put, if I burn my bread when I am making toast, I do not blame the bread.

To suggest, also, that God’s choices lie between free-will (with knowledge of good and evil) and slavery (without knowledge of good and evil) is severely limiting and presumptuous. It is entirely plausible that human beings ought to retain their free-will whilst being granted knowledge of good and evil without being entirely sinful and despicable creatures, yet the Bible does not recognize this possibility.

Any limit of our emotional, moral and intellectual capabilities that does not allow us to comprehend good and evil and retain our free-will whilst not being creatures of sin and evil that we are is a limit that God has imposed upon us and has blamed us for. That is to say that we are created so that we cannot possibly do all of the following:

[a] have free will
[b]comprehend good and evil
[c]be righteous creatures

Yet these are impositions upon us, and God was entirely aware of the ramifications of his actions when he created us thusly. He created us with the limit such that only two of any of the three things I listed above can be achieved, and most religious people would agree. Yet he still saw fit to test his creations that he had created with such limitations, and to stake the eternal fate of generations to come on such a test.

I find this to be abhorrent. After Adam and Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, their immortality was no longer given but forced to be earned, and if it is to be earned then, tacitly, there will be some that will not earn it. These people should suffer, die and live in a lower state of being (for ideas of hell are still fuzzy at this stage) and denied further life due to a test to which they were not a party that God created us predestined to fail.

Also, again, the Bible then deals with suffering that humans suffer due to their own immorality and evil nature, but what of that they suffer due to nothing more than the way that God saw it fit to create the world. The world and its function has been characterized by natural disasters, earthquakes, volcanoes and other forces of destruction from its very inception, and if the Bible is to be believed, this was God’s will.

Such destruction is a by-product of natural mechanics that the Earth, as created by God, requires, and these by-products, of which God was aware in creating the Earth, are destructive and cause suffering. The world does not require such disasters any further than God endowed it with such necessity, and this necessity leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings yearly.

Similarly, new-born children are often endowed with bone diseases or defects from the second that their existence begins. We can extrapolate two positions from this, in the Bible, and neither of them are agreeable, but I’d like to clarify first. There is nothing about, for example, children born with diseases and defects, that is natural or automatic any further than God made it so.

God is omnipotent. He is not working within a construct that is set for him; he had no obligation to create a world in which bone cancer, birth defects and other such miseries were ‘automatic byproducts of natural mechanics’. There is nothing automatic about it; the world and the natural order was, as held by the Bible, very carefully and specifically crafted by God; the miseries that result from it cannot then be ‘automatic’ or ‘necessary’, they are not ‘automatic’ byproducts but byproducts of the specific way that God crafted the world and its natural mechanics.

So in such, it is dishonest to claim otherwise; that God did not intend for such defects to exist and should be viewed accordingly.

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When debate becomes meaningless Friday, Jun 4 2010 

I recently realised something.

Debating with religious people is really difficult.

Now, obviously I already knew this up to a point, but I’ve recently had something of a realisation regarding the extent of this. In a recent debate about the nature of demonic forces allowing and spreading evil within the world (already with the benefit of hindsight I can tell I was taking far too much for the sake of argument), and a reply came back which basically consisted of several assertions and Bible verses. I realised at this point that we were having a completely pointless conversation.

I don’t care if you say god is love, I don’t care if you tell me angels have the free will to rebel and become demons, I don’t care if you tell me Jesus is the way to battle demonic influence, and I don’t care if you quote me every passage from the Bible complete with it’s little name and number. I realised after reading this that he was just talking utter nonsense because it was all unproven assertions as far as I was concerned. For me to take the existence of angels and demons as true for the sake of argument is conceding far too much – it loses me in a world of fantasy that I cannot argue against because I don’t actually believe any of it.

When it comes down to it, the only real debate is this: can the existence of god(s) be proven? All the arguments from morality, all the demonstrations of religious excess and cruelty, these count for nothing because they don’t tell us anything about whether god(s) exist or not. The real debate needs to be about if god(s) exist or not – is the teleological argument convincing, for example, and if not why not?

I suppose my point is really to point out something I’m guilty of fairly often: don’t concede so much for the sake of argument that you end up talking about angels and demons and how the affect our morality, because then we may as well be talking about how pixies affect the productivity of cobblers.

Is the criticism of religion bigotry? Tuesday, Jun 1 2010 

If you are an active atheist – someone who debates with religious people to any extent – it’s more than likely you have been called a bigot for your trouble. To some, criticism of religion is bigotry, and I have heard this opinion even from atheists.

The problem is that religion tends to be a large part of peoples lives (especially those who conciously seek out conversation with those of opposing views), and thus to criticise their religion is to critice something that is percieved to be a core and unchangable part of their life.

There is a further problem, for me as a Brit at least: criticism of some religions is equated with criticism of those who tend to follow it, or to put it bluntly: racism. Here in the UK, we have a fairly large Muslim community, who tend to come from Pakistan, India (along with Hindus and Sikhs) , and Bangladesh. Quite frankly, as a wishy-washy liberal, I love it. I love the fact that curry is now a British staple dish, I love the fact that we have different and more numerous cultural influences, I love the fact that most of us can live together without a whole lot of problems. Some people don’t love that fact: the BNP are the far-right party in the UK, and their dream is of an ethnically pure Britian. Seriously. However, the vast majority of people aren’t quite that racist, so for the past few years, the BNP has been using criticism of Islam as a way of criticising immigrants.

Amongst those of a liberal persuation, this leads to a distrust of criticism of Islam: I even find myself doubting something criticing Islam from time to time because I have a knee-jerk reaction to equate criticism of Islam with a blanket criticism of those who follow it.

And herein lies the difference. Religion is something to be followed, it is not what you are. Maybe you are a religious fanatic who feels that they are nothing without their faith: but you must choose to follow through on it. If someone is Pakistani, Eritrean, Fijian, Flemish, Irish, if someone is male or female, if someone is gay or straight: they didn’t choose it and there is no creed or set of instructions to be followed. With religion, there is a creed, there are sets of instructions, and to criticise those who interpret them a certain way is not bigotry, it is simply comment on the free action of another human.

Why a benevolent divine law-giver almost certainly does not exist. Monday, Apr 19 2010 

Those of a Christian bent generally have something along these lines to say to excuse the evils in the world: “god has to allow evil because he has to allow our free will”. Whilst this may satisfy some curious minds, it doesn’t really explain anything.

I recently came across an almost perfect analogy which completely destroys the reasoning of allowing evil to let free will reign. If a policeman stops a thief stealing something, we do not claim the fact that the thief’s free will has been curtailed is some kind of huge moral evil. The point is that we have laws and they are enforced – the problem with scriptural laws is that they are not enforced. The laws that various gods have allegedly passed down to their prophets have only ever been enforced when humans have taken it upon themselves to enforce them.

Now, the problem with this is that within the Christian paradigm is the doctrine of Original Sin. So here we have a situation where the divine law-giver has given us the laws, and instead of enforcing them himself, he palms off the responsibility on us: those who are suppossedly “fallen”. It’d be like the government creating laws and relying on ex-cons to uphold them rather than the police.

The whole idea is fundamentally flawed. To Christians who laud the free will defence of allowing god to let evils occur: I do not understand how you can rationalise living in a society which operates under the rule of law which neccessarily curtails the free will of those who would commit actions deemed illegal. If any gods exist, it is their responsibility to uphold any laws they create – to do any less would be irresonsible.

The Big Bang, Fact or Fiction? Saturday, Apr 3 2010 

The Big Bang, Fact or Fiction?

It’s rather irritating to those in the science fields to hear the phrase, “The Big Bang is no different than god creating the universe.” This assertion is so biased and misinformed I have to wonder about the troglodyte that said it in the first place. The Big Bang is a mathematically reducible concept. Here’s why:

A great scientist Edwin Hubble (who we name the Hubble telescope after) found out that v = H*d. He, for the first time established that the universe was and is indeed expanding. It was this relationship that destroyed scientists’ previous theories of an infinite stable state universe. Basically the relationship between how fast a galaxy is receding from earth is a property of how far away it is. The further the galaxy is the faster they are receding from us.

This was the first proof that space itself was expanding, pushing away objects held together by gravity faster and faster as the amount of space between two objects grew. To notice this effect you need to be two galaxies separated by mind boggling distances but the effect grows rapidly.

How can galaxies be approaching then? Well galaxies aren’t just static, they’re moving in space as space is expanding between them. Some galaxies such as the Andromeda galaxy are close enough that the expanding space between it and our galaxy is not greater than the velocity at which it’s approaching ours, but it is a general rule that the farther something is away from us the faster it’s moving away from us.

It was this theory that lead science to postulate the idea of a ‘big bang’ something seen previously as impossibility. It became science overnight to believe that time actually had a starting point and that our universe was born. If space was expanding faster and faster objects at one point had, logically, to be closer and if objects were closer gravity should have pulled them together and, like an explosion, once that force was overcome the universe would’ve rapidly expanded. We know now that it wasn’t only gravity but I digress.

As science progressed we filled in more blanks. If there was a big bang there should’ve been energetic residue throughout the universe that proved it did; however no one was having any luck finding this residue.

It’s important now to understand the nature of light. Electromagnetic radiation (of which visible light is a part of) is a property of its wavelength. Radiowaves are large; the visible spectrum of light includes small tight waves, and X-rays are even smaller. In 1964 two Radio astronomers were using a telescope which interprets Microwaves instead of visible light. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were having a problem. They were attempting to run experiments with satellites and radio astronomy but they could not account for several extra degrees Kelvin.

Both Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson knew that the atmosphere contributed a minor amount to their readings but it had been long established that this was only about two degrees Kelvin. They were reading seven to eight degrees Kelvin. They assumed something else was influencing it. First they checked nearby radio signals and pointed their telescope away from incoming sources. Unfortunately they were still reading around seven degrees Kelvin.

This didn’t make sense until they heard the squawk of pigeons coming from their telescope. Usually pigeons wouldn’t affect such equipment but they decided to clear the birds out anyways and after having the fowl creatures return several times were forced to use drastic means. After scrubbing the pigeon’s left-overs from their telescope they tried again; six degrees Kelvin.

At this point, after clearing every inconsistency away, they couldn’t understand why cold dark space seemed to be anything but cold and dark. Their telescope had been calibrated manually, their interference had been removed and the birds had been killed. The only conclusion was that space wasn’t cold and dark.

What Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson had stumbled upon was the predicted residue from the big bang: a snapshot of the microwave radiation still present in all space from the initial explosion of the big bang. This was dubbed the CMBR or the cosmic microwave background radiation. After the stunning discovery scientists had their smoking gun. The big bang was now fact.

So then what would the big bang have been like? Well using Hubble’s law and the more exact data provided by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson we can calculate the universe’s age to be somewhere between fourteen to fifteen billion years old. The number of course is more exact as we can derive down to a fraction of a second after the big bang (when the laws of our universe break down and quantum mechanics take over) but the point is the universe is about that old.

Fifteen billion years ago the big bang formed. From quantum mechanics we believe this was caused by a spacetime foam, these foams are created when universes (constantly shifting and moving) interact with each other creating a new universe. The new universe starts out as a big bang singularity. Big bang singularities should not be confused with the singularities at the center of a black hole; though the idea behind both is the same (minus gravity) the big bang singularity contains all of the original stuff in our entire universe within it.

This singularity was amazingly energetic and dense. The fundamental forces of our universe held it together acting as a ‘super force’ gravity, electro magnetism, weak interaction (where nuclear fission gets its energy), and strong interaction (where nuclear fusion gets its energy) were one.

One of the neat things about the birth of a universe is that time begins. As time begins change happens and so it did. The forces were violently thrown off of the singularity condensing into the laws that we know today releasing a huge explosion of energy. As the singularity expanded, space itself expanded, its boundaries pushed larger and larger as the singularity exploded. Space quite literally expanded faster than the speed of light.

Some might say, hey wait a minute, nothing is faster than the speed of light. This is true but that’s assuming in a straight line. The laws of relativity allow for a loophole to that speed. Rather than you moving, the space around you moves, and the expansion of space or even the shape of it is not constrained by light.

The farther the primordial energies of the big bang got from one another the more space and time there was to dissipate their heat. Energies interacted in ways that can’t happen at modern day temperatures building up complexity as they coalesced and interacted producing most (if not all) of the matter and energy within the universe today. First it was photons, then electrons and positrons then protons, antiprotons, and neutrons.

With the building blocks of matter in place the first (and still the most common) element appeared: hydrogen. The universe was nothing but gaseous hydrogen at this point but there was a lot of it and space itself buckled under the weight. A star was born, and another and another. Soon galaxies and super clusters were born. The engine within a star produced all of the elements through iron we know and love today. Unfortunately fusion by itself isn’t enough stars simply don’t possess enough energy to fuse heavier elements than Iron.

What was needed was an explosion. The first supernova, second and soon trillions propagated the heavier elements throughout the universe. Eventually, in a small galaxy and on the edge of one arm enough raw materials came together to give birth to a star. That star we call Sol, and around that star dust and debris collected to form planets. The Solar system was born.

So that leads us back to our first question. The big bang, fact or fiction? Frankly to believe in anything else is insanity.

The Origins of Morality Wednesday, Mar 24 2010 

Picking up from where Fiyenyaa left off, I’d like to talk about the origins of morality, in terms of religion.

Many people attempt to claim that religion is a good thing because books such as the Bible provide a sense of morality. There are several problems here.

It is difficult to claim that there is any form of universal or objective morality. All we see are moral statements that, more so than others, tend to be culturally universal and broadly-accepted. For example, let’s consider the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

To deal with the obvious first, I hope that there isn’t anyone that genuinely believes that the Jews and other people of the Earth thought for 196,000 years of humanity’s existence that it was fine to kill others within their social group and were shocked when Moses came down and suggested that, in fact, God doesn’t like this.

The important thing we have to recognise here is that religion is, in no way, the source of this ‘morality’. These are concepts that came about through  the process of humanity’s interaction with the sociological and biological realities of the world they inhabit. They transcend and outdate religion. Religion, in saying that one should not kill, is only entering into a discourse that reflects society’s engagement with the realities of their existence. It is not saying anything that is original or ground-breaking and, in fact, it really just saying things that secular reasoning had determined tens of thousands of years prior.

Holy Scriptures such as the Bible have very little original to say, and people who point to parts of it and say “but we can all agree this is good” ignore the fact that the reason we can all agree this is good is an entirely secular one to do with human sociological patterns that, in fact, renders the morality of religion entirely useless.

As always, I welcome all comments. Also, forgive the fact that this isn’t as detailed as I originally intended; uni calls.

What can Christian morality justify? Monday, Mar 22 2010 

An often-repeated agument in favour of religion is that one requires religion to be moral. Not only do certain denominations of religious people claim this, but I have encountered rare non-theists who claim that religion is some kind of neccesary lie – that the illusion of a religious moral system is required in order to preserve society from chaos. I happen to think that whilst this may once have been the case, general human morals (in those parts of the world which are no longer governed in accordance with religious law) have moved past this phase and are now superior.

However, this post is about a specific evil of Christian doctrine – the doctrine of Hell. There are those who do not ascribe to this doctrine; for example, annihilationists believe that those who do not go to heaven simply cease to exist. However, the most mainstream view is that those who do not fit the requirements for paradise go to hell and are punished in some way for all eternity. This is not only immoral, it is qualitatively immoral. No finite crime can justify infinite punishment.

In order to justify hell as a moral system that god had set up, I recently saw this post on a forum I frequent:

“Would he demand love? Of course, can you imagine a father indifferent to whether his child loves him or not? What in the world are you talking about?

And as for the basement, he would be locked in and tortured if he was an evil and wicked child, yes.”

In order to give context; someone gave an analogy of hell as being similar to a parent who demands love from his children, and if the children did not love him (or if the child was evil in some way) he would lock the child up in a basement and torture him.

My problem is not solely with the logic of this post (I think virtually anyone looking critically at this can the flaw in torturing a child for it’s crimes), but the fact that the supposed bastion of morality allows this sort of thing.

Religious apologism for the evils of humanity and the world is when you think about it quite a horrible concept. We know and acknowledge these evils occur in the world – and those who wish to reconcile their deity with these evils are forced to justify them. By explaining how they fit within the paradigm of a universe ruled by an all-loving creator, they are essentially making these examples of great suffering and evil into actions that are fine; because they must be in order for them to be allowed.

Perhaps when you hear an apologist’s argument (or indeed when you make one) you should step back from what you have just explained, and look at it clearly for a moment. If you have just explained why the Haitian earthquake was in fact fine and dandy because it fits into god’s plan – perhaps you will want to think about whether you want to make these things fine and dandy.

Joshua 10:40 Day! Tuesday, Mar 16 2010 

I noticed on facebook that a lot of people were joining an event called “John 3:16 Day”, talking about the love of Christianity and being proud to be of God and such and such and such, and on this day they would all change their statuses to this one verse, John 3:16.

Anyone who looks objectively can see that all they are doing is cherry-picking the nice verses whilst ignoring the rest of the barbaric, disgusting verses that remain. Thus was born the event Joshua 10:40 Day. Joshua 10:40 reads:

“So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded.”

This verse is just one of hundreds of examples of rape, murder, genocide and ethnic cleansing committed by God or on his direct orders in the Old Testament.

It is the same day as John 3:16 day, March 18th, and I just figured that I would make people aware of this idea, for anyone that is interested in taking a stand against the hypocrisy of Christianity and religion in general.

Into the Christian Union Monday, Mar 15 2010 

So a month or two ago I went to the Christian Union at my university to get a bit of an insight, and hopefully to interact with people via debate. The topic was “Why does God allow natural disasters?” which I thought they may have a hard time justifying.

The first thing I noticed was just how popular the Christian Union was. I don’t know how many were like me, only there for observation and disagreement, but there were far more people than chairs. This slightly unnerved me, as religion is routinely shown to be fairly unpopular in the UK. Perhaps we still have a way to go.

The speaker gets up to the stage and the first thing he does is disagree with the ‘Pat Robertson’ approach – in other words he says that these disasters are not punishment from god for sins or dealing with the devil. Interesting, I thought – at least this won’t be some kind of ultra-fundamentalist argument which will result in me being thrown out due to anger.

However, whilst his first argument was slightly less overtly immoral, is was nonetheless vacuous. He claimed that natural disasters are required as part of the workings of our world – they are merely part of the process of the natural world. He is of course correct – but let me tell you something about omnipotence. Omnipotence means you can do anything. His god isn’t just doing the best with the tools he had, he wasn’t forced to use the framework for a planet that included earthquakes in inconvenient areas. An omnipotent god could create a fully-functioning world without natural disasters.

His other argument essentially boiled down to “money is evil” – which as an aside I rather like as being much truer to Christianity than certain denominations which have become so entwined with the political right that they have become ‘Churches of the Free Market and Jesus Christ’ – but let me explain: his idea was that if you looked at (to use his example) the 2004 tsunami, you would see that places like Thailand you would see a heavy effect, whilst places like Burma did not – this was due to the mangrove swamps around the coast being removed in places like Thailand in order to provide beaches for tourists. This, he claimed was bad – the Thai people’s greed (and he then went on in a slightly humourous manner to say how they exhibited all the seven deadly sins – every one of which boiled down to greed for money, which rather defeats the purpose of having seven) meant that they had destroyed the natural barriers god provided simply in order to make money.

Leaving for a moment the ridiculous notion of claiming that Burma is better than it’s neighbours (a country run by a military dictatorship that does not encourage tourism in any appreciable way), this is unbelievable. His argument basically boils down to “don’t try and make a living”. The idea that one should be punished (even by proxy) simply for trying to make one’s country prosperous and less like Junta-led Burma appalls me, frankly.

Unfortunately, no questions were had as he’d overrun on the time. Of my fellow students, no-one was really prepared to fully agree with the speaker once I had put my concerns to them (I find that Christians – or at least liberal Christians – tend to attempt to excuse away immorality of religion rather than simply condemning it or accepting it), so I didn’t get a good answer.

Perhaps someone else can enlighten me as to why the world’s poor must be required to undergo hardship like no other?