What God?

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I have heard in my time many arguments for the existence of God.  From a science perspective we have many variations of the Anthropic principle, which is a very weak tautology.  If humans are well suited to the world, then it must be assumed that it was created for us.  These apologists often base these arguments on some sort of calculation of chance, (The odds of human evolution are some ridiculous number to 1) which is also completely specious and we can go into the specific reasons later.

There’s another argument that appeals to human psychology.  Usually you get this a lot from the likes of CS Lewis who felt that a sense of wonder was, by definition, proof of god.  Which is also pretty specious.  You can live quite wonderful fulfilling lives without the baggage of religion.  Possibly quite better lives than your religious fellows.  Even if this was not true it wouldn’t matter.

One of my  favorite arguments it appeal to the authenticity of the bible.  Perhaps the ultimate tautology.  Well if the Bible says that it’s trustworthy… how could we go wrong.  Generally, claims of Biblical authority are backed with prophesy.  Prophesy is where you chose any two points in time and create an artificial sense of significance between them.  Generally you might have to jigger the math a bit.  A year is equal to a day is a common trick.

Here’s my problem with all of it.  If we assume god to be an all-knowing interactive deity dedicated to guiding humanity, then there are some pretty glaring problems.  One always hates to assume something about god.  How do you know something that is inherently unknowable? But we can certainly evaluate the claims about him. If god is going to deign to give humanity vague and unhelpful clues about the future, why not something useful?  How about forms of government? God says very little about it other than to follow his laws and he’s got your back.  He also begrudgingly tolerates the development of the Israeli short-lived monarchy.  Maybe he wasn’t so tolerant after all. Jesus will later tell the Hebrews to tolerate the Roman empire. God could have let us in on the monarchy or the democracy.  Both innovations in their time would have been terrific advancements and could have halted a tremendous amount of suffering, especially if god set out an orderly progression.

He also makes an extraordinary number of ethical errors.  For example, this was a fantastic time to state unequivocally that slavery is bad but… he didn’t.  Why?  God couldn’t figure that one out?  Speaking of which, genocide would have been another thing to put out there as something you absolutely should NOT do, except that it’s explicitly endorsed by the Bible. My least favorite is something god specifically commanded. Circumcision. There’s no excuse for genital mutilation. Speaking of genitals, some healthier guidelines on healthy sexual expression and the LGBT acceptance would have been fantastic.  Sorry, God drops the ball again.  The treatment of women as second-class citizens is a phenomenal failure that with a few words could have been halted.  Things like being forced to marry your rapist? What the hell god? you have to answer for that. The notion of universal equality was something that took over 17 hundred years from the birth of Christ to develop.  How about tips for world peace? the closest we’ve come is commercial and diplomatic ties are critical but you won’t find that in the Bible.  God couldn’t suggest a more equitable profit sharing arrangements for distributing wealth? This also would have saved untold suffering in the world.

How about medical and technological insights?  It wouldn’t have been difficult for god to weigh in on how to make primitive vaccines, or procedures for quarantining patients with communicable diseases.  Something as simple as soap and water can prevent a tremendous amount of infection. Clean water, boiled water, sewer systems, cleaning trash, developing some infrastructure, all these things would have been within a bronze age level of technology and would have prevented many of the plagues that devastated humanity.  In fact, science is as much a mental discipline as it is a collection of technologies.  That could easily have been communicated to Bronze Age cultures.  Certainly Iron Age cultures came very close to this kind of discipline. There’s any number of facets of psychology, environmentalism, medicine, health, education, and more that god just apparently forgot to mention.

Actually, the more you look at the Bible the more one realizes that god didn’t really know anything more about life and the future or even the past than your average Bronze Age warlord.  In fact, much of the the history, science, prohibitions, legal philosophy is just wrong -as in verifiably incorrect.  If we consider the Bible “useful for instruction” then this instruction must be limited to how to evaluate mythologies.  Clearly thinking critically isn’t on the curriculum.  If the proof for god lies in the bible then we can easily conclude there is no god, or that he has chosen not to involve himself in our lives in this way.  The fact that there are so many ways to have made society so much better that an all knowing god could have imparted and chosen not to, brings to light the ridiculous of a literal interpretation of Christianity.


Dear Conservative Christians

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About gay marriage, or as it’s henceforth known — marriage, we know your very unhappy. You feel betrayed by the Supreme Court. Your pal Scalia wrote that there had been a “putsch”, or coup, and the Court Justices were acting like “nine rulers” over all America.   You believe that contrary to all reason the Court has dramatically and undemocratically redefined marriage in Obergefell v Hodges. After all, it’s happened before. In 1967, the Court ruled 9-0 that marriage now included mixed race couples. In strictest honesty, that was an even greater and more undemocratic than Obergefell. In 1967, the approval rate of interracial was less than 20%. Far less than the approximately 50-60% approval that gay marriage enjoys today. This was from a time, still in living memory, when people of color were considered less than human.  In a day, marriage became about the growth and prosperity two people instead of entire tribes. So yes, it was a big deal. 

However, I have good news. The Supreme Court did not redefine marriage; it undefined it. You consider the question of gay marriage, and homosexuality in general, to carry great moral weight. This is fantastic. It truly, genuinely is. The reason you should embrace the Obergefell ruling is that the Courts have said clearly and unambiguously that the government will not and cannot define morals for you. Perhaps I’m mistaken. Maybe you do want the government telling you what is and isn’t moral. Again, I could be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that you want to decide questions of morality for yourself. That is exactly and explicitly what this ruling does.

Now, you’re not totally wrong. You have indeed lost some freedom here. Inasmuch as the government can’t tell you what is moral, neither can you tell others. I know this is a favorite hobby of evangelicals (the clue is, after all, in the name) but your moral values can no longer impede the lives of others. If you think homosexuality is immoral, so be it. Don’t be a homosexual. That’s the end of it. You can’t lock up a person for being gay anymore, and you haven’t been able to since 2003.

If you really truly believe in the righteousness of your cause, you must convince the rest of us by you living it daily. Having the government force your dictates on to others is aggressively antiChristian, quintessentially antiAmerican, completely counter-productive.

Obergefell is a victory for you. Celebrate it with enthusiasm. Failing that, have a heart


Fear and change

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Starting with the secret Muslim socialist Kenyan Birtherism, conservatives have gotten so terrified and so paranoid that I’m afraid they will respond in the most human way imaginable. That they will inevitably resort to hysterical violence. Each of their conspiracies are more crazy than the one before.  At this moment, we have such a huge swath of Texas believing they’re about to be invaded by our own military for some obscure reason. So many believe this so strongly, they’ve convinced their governor and a leading presidential contender/actual senator to treat them seriously. This is after Michelle Bachmann said with a straight face and in all seriousness that Barack Obama will bring about the apocalypse.  These are the same people who pointed weapons at federal law enforcement officers at the Bundy Ranch. (Thank god the government stood down.  The Bundy Ranch Massacre would not have made a good headline.) and shortly after those same nutters shot several cops. Somehow I don’t see the Tea Party taking themselves out like Jones Town. I see them needing to exercise their demons using high caliber weapons. If you listen to gun rights advocates, the number one reason they will tell that they need all these guns is to protect themselves from an overreaching government. This is a uniquely American phenomena. No other government on the planet would allow people to stockpile weapons for the express purpose of destroying or resisting the government. But in these uncertain times, this is what is necessary for them to feel safe. And there in lies the key. 

If you look at history we’re in the middle of a transition. For thousands of years men have invented myths and religions to help explain the world and provide a sense of order and direction. And religion is really good at coming up with feel good bullshit about how the world was made and how it works. 

Eventually, sometime around the late Iron Age-early medieval period, government began to compete with religion in what it can tell people to do, and how it made sense of the world.  The clash was long and horribly bloody with no clear winner.  Religion and government more or less agreed to a compromise and thus began The Enlightenment. Since then there have been successive industrial and scientific revolutions that have gradually displaced religion and government from people’s lives. People have more freedom now than ever before. People are healthier and wealthier than at any point in human history and the twin institutions that we’re used to relying on, have proven themselves completely inadequate –if not thoroughly corrupt.  

The problem is science is, by definition, uncertain. In fact, it’s uncertain with a very high degree of precision. The government certainly can’t provide a comforting narrative. I think people beginning to realize there’s no quick fix, no handy ideology for the economy. Terrorism can’t be fixed with a strong military or shadowy police state. Environmental problems now have a global reach and global problems aren’t as simple as locking delegates in the same room in New York’s most architecturally boring building. It means talking to the “bad guys” because ignoring them or blowing them up simply won’t work. Even long standing traditions are under assault because they’re terribly oppressive and that’s no longer acceptable. If you chart the progress of freedom during the last 100 years here has been tremendous growth. But it hasn’t been easy And there are no guarantees. Obama isn’t the first President to promise change. They all do that. But he embodies that change by virtue of his skin color, his personal narrative, and his view of the world.  It’s this combination of racism and generalized anxiety that is causing such an extreme reaction to his relatively banal politics. 

Humanity has yet to embrace this new found power. It’s still looking towards institutions for meaning and direction.  It’s still rejecting that meaning, freedom, and liberty because they don’t have the strength to resurrect them as internal constructs. So many are afraid. This latest conspiracy theory is just a focused outpouring of fear and uncertainty.  Change is hard and we have the duty and obligation of ensuring that change comes to all.  The more we resist change the harder it goes for us. The less control we have. It’s time to seize control of our own emotions, our will, and abandon the need religion and governments to provide meaning and direction.  I don’t expect this to happen.  I fully expect that people will grow old and die clinging to their outdated beliefs.  But where there are children, there is hope.

The limits of freedom

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You’ve probably read this statement or one similar to it at your place of employment: “[This organization] prohibits discrimination against and harassment of any employee or any applicant for employment because of race, color, national or ethnic origin, age, religion, disability, gender, or any other characteristic protected under applicable federal or state law.”

I find this statement comforting. After all, we are all covered in there somewhere. You might say to yourself, “lets see, I have an age, gender, and even a nation of origin. Yup! I’m covered”. Personally, as a heterosexual white male Protestant, I don’t really have a lot to worry about in the whole “oppression” bit. Ill do the oppressing thank you very much, but other people not as privileged as me DO have to worry about discrimination. In fact, anti-discrimination laws have been on the books since 1964 and we can all see what a wonderful job they’ve done at preventing discriminated against, well, NON white-Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But in so much as these laws will prevent some bigoted person from from discriminating against WASP men they are a horrific infringement on the rights of my employers to be total jerks if they wish to be.

Not only does the constitution protect the rights of people to be ignorant and offensive, but there’s a specific clause that is almost a mandate for it. Your first amendment right, broadly speaking, to believe any damnable thing you like. Now I fully support a person’s right to believe that a gay person is an abomination on society, going straight to hell, and will bring upon the US the wrath of God before he does so. I even support your right to say so out loud, print it in the press, protest along those lines and in general work to make the world a little more stupid and evil. However I do not believe you have the constitutional authority to harm people through your bigotry.

“I’m not harming people, they can go to the gay-friendly bakery across the street” True. If it was as simple making a single cake, then walking across the street would be more than sufficient and, in practice, this probably the most likely outcome. But there are a couple of reasons why we shouldn’t let it pass. First is it does tangible harm to the community not only in the specific instance but more generally too. If you can’t see it or recognize it then I applaud your being a member of a privileged group that hasn’t suffered this kind of hatred on a continual basis.
The second reason goes back to the Civil Rights Act where congress decided and the Courts agreed that the government has the right to regulate these kinds of business relationships. It’s in everyone’s best interest if minorities can buy and sell like everyone else. Not to mention minority groups have a protected right to conduct business in and about their town which will become exceedingly difficult with pro-discrimination laws in place and pressure from anti-LGBT groups.

Thirdly if you discriminate against a gay person on the basis of your religion, you can discriminate against any person, for any reason, at any time. All of those anti discrimination laws I mentioned at the beginning, gone. Because injustice, even a small injustice like rude and bigoted wedding photographers, is like an infection. It spreads and the bigger it is the harder it is to wipe out. The easier it is to promote hatred and intolerance the more of it well get. Now it’s a wedding cake, tomorrow it’s firing an employee or denying them medical care, housing, transportation, or just the tacit acceptance of violence against minority groups. If you think I’m being alarmist and slippery-slopish then you have completely failed to understand the plight of minority groups. These things do happen to them. It’s not a question of just going next door to the gay-friendly bakery it’s protecting everyone’s right to live and do business in their communities.

Other people’s rights aren’t infringed. A business is can not practice a religion. A business has no constitutional rights. You being forced to interact with others is not a violation of your freedom to worship. This country used to have laws that promoted religious discrimination. If you were Jewish or Irish or the wrong “-ism” you could be forcibly ejected from certain neighborhoods and economic opportunities do we want to back to that? Mandatory church services at work? religious based discrimination? Because that’s what is at stake with these laws.

We are all bound together. There is no separating us. There is no us or them. Bigotry is nothing more than an elaborate form of self-harm. I love you and will do everything I can to prevent you from harming yourself and others.

The Beauty of Religion

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What is the value of a religion?  It’s simple.  The sole criterion on which a religion can and should be judged is it’s ability to help it’s adherents be better people.  And by better I mean people who are more patient, more compassionate, angry about social injustice, more tolerant of others, more generous with our resources,  smarter in mind, healthier in body,  more emotionally balanced, more spiritually aware.  Those are the characteristics that a religion should concern itself with.  A religion can do other things too.  A religion can be judged by how it treats it’s non-members.  How it changes it’s environment, manages its money, what social or political cause it supports, or what freedoms it expands to everyone in the world.  A religion that can do all of this is truly worth a jot and tiddle.

Not all religions are perfect.  In fact, there is no perfect religion and we must content ourselves with this fact.  There are no perfect adherents to a religion such as there are not any perfect people.  I do not mind an imperfect religion full of imperfect people.  I have given you my criterion for which a religion should be judged.  Failing to be perfect was not on that list, nor was perfect members on the list.  I do not and can not judge a group of individuals by the actions of a few.

One of the beautiful things about religion in America is that each person is free to practice or not according to the dictates of one’s reason and conscience.  Do not misunderstand me.  There are things about religious beliefs I find incredibly silly.  These are my opinions and boy are there some doozies out there.  However, in the interest of politeness I generally don’t go around insulting everyone around me.  And, in the interest of politeness and neighborly affection, people don’t go around insulting me.  Usually.

Recently I came across a religion unfamiliar to me.  I’d heard the name here and there, but have never given it serious attention.  When it came up in the news recently I went to their website to see what their tenants were.  This is what I found.

There are seven fundamental tenets.

  1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
  2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
  3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
  4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forego your own.
  5. Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
  6. People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
  7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.

What did those in the News Media suggest for people who adhere to these tenets?  That they should be brought to the moment they wish to create alongside a christian monument on government land and executed by the state.  This was Fox News Business, mensa group.  I’ll provide a link below if you wish to watch the video.  After all I could be mischaracterizing  the Fox Panelist’s argument.  They seem to be suggesting that Satanists, to whom these tenets belong, are inherently evil for being “anti-christian”.  Which is, I’m sure, how most christians feel about Satanists.  Far be it from me to suggest that those in the News might want to devote some effort into looking at the complex issues surrounding this particular religion, it’s history, it’s impact on society, how it’s members think and feel.  Nor would I wish to suggest that by saying on national TV that these people should be executed might be contrary to one’s business and legal interests.  I would not want to point out that shallow trivial caricaturization of religion might not live up to the hopes of something called a “mensa meeting”.

I don’t care what you believe about Satanism.  It is not relevant.  We have freedom of religion in this country.  Any religion.  We do not go around shooting people we disagree with.  We don’t even suggest it.  In fact this is one of those vanishingly rare limits we have on the freedom of speech.  If some disturbed person shoots a Satanist you can bet Fox news will have a wrongful death suit on it’s hands which it will lose.  Heck, Satanists might sue anyway.  We don’t have “equality” for only Christians here.  You want to put up your religious symbol then you can damn well let others do the same.  And if you don’t like that religion, you can take solace from the fact that in this country a minority religion could never rise to power and have YOU lined up and shot.  Fox news is sick, their panelist was sick.  I have no words for how vile and offensive what they said was.

The Fox News segment:

My religion

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For those who don’t know, I was brought up in a very devoutly religious family. We went to services every Saturday (our family were Adventists) I participated in youth groups, and summer camps. I went to religious schools from first grade until after graduated from Andrews. Don’t worry. This isn’t an expose of social dysfunction. As a child I had a wonderful supportive family and not in that weird creepy way that some religious families can be. My disaffection with religious life has nothing to do with some horrible trauma, or legalistic authority figure.  No Footloose style drama.  No huge dysfunction. No villainous archetype.  I’m not trying to suggest that my village church was perfect.  It wasn’t.  They weren’t immune from small town attitudes or bad behaviors but the church was full of people trying to be better. To grow in whatever way they could. They didn’t always succeed but they tried.  In retrospect, the lack of any huge dysfunction probably made it a lot easier to distance myself from them. The church is an excellent place to be if you need them. If you need that level of emotional and familial support.  If you don’t, then it struggles to find meaning or a purpose.

When I think of my own experience with religion and my own religious beliefs, I have known far too many shallow, petty, anti-intellectual people to ever feel welcome in a religion.  I’ve met the anti-gay bigots, and the paranoid fanatics or the militant anti-evolutionists / anti-scientists.  One can not possibly hope to belong to a church for long and not find them.   When it comes to just treating people well, the political church has become an anathema.  The way women, homosexuals, the poor, and a unbelievers are treated in so much of the country should bring complete and utter shame to Christianity.  Unfortunately, it’s not just the political church, but the personal one as well.

But that is too uncomplicated of a picture.  I have also known far too many warm, caring, honest, people who have outwardly personified everything I would hope for the human race to ever completely divorce myself from religion.  There are countless others surrounding the vulnerable, protecting, supporting, and encouraging in the best example of  humanity that I know.  I have met them, talked with them, lived with them, and I can’t ignore them.  You can’t not love them.  Not if you expect to remain human.  I’m not saying there aren’t some real bastards out there.  There are and they shouldn’t get away with their behavior.  But that’s not most people.  Not by a long shot.  It’s so very tempting to put everyone in a box of good and evil, liberal or conservative, and forget that real people are complex and contradictory.

Finally there’s one last thing that I could never forget.  One of the last conversations I had with my late grandfather, an Adventist pastor, was when I managed to get a semi-private word with him at a family reunion. I told him of my discomfort with the church, and the churches discomfort with me.  How I feel let down by the promise of religion and it’s narrow, rigid interpretation of life and history.  How, in some ways, I feel the church could never accept someone in no-man’s  land like myself.  He told that there were a lot of people like me out there and also that I had his unconditional love and acceptance.  This is perhaps the least shocking thing I’ve ever heard from my grandfather.  Of course I had his love and acceptance.  And in this one case, I even had his understanding, which is something rare and precious for me.  My grandfather isn’t unique among Adventists or generic Christians.  He’s special to me, but his attitudes are not unusual.  That’s not something that you can just dismiss or ignore when thinking about religion and religious people.

My hope is that we think better of each other.  I know this isn’t something I’m really good at but it’s what my religious experience has taught me: that we could all be a little bit more understanding and gracious.