Atheist or agnostic?

Am I an atheist, or not? It depends on the definition of “atheist”, and on the mindset of the person asking. In Europe I label myself agnostic, because I have no understanding of why there is a Universe. But in the United States it’s easiest to say I’m an atheist, because anything short of that implies support for the idea of a personal God.

God watching TV

I find offensive the idea of a personal God who, swayed by the emotional appeal of prayers from the devout, favors one person over another. I don’t care whether they’re praying about healing an illness, or winning a ballgame, or picking the right lottery ticket – what morality is there in an omnipotent deity who would intervene in that, and not intervene in the most extreme situations of human suffering?

I find illogical the idea of a God who creates individuals and then punishes them for acting according to the nature they were given.

I find simplistic the idea that God’s Universe is focused on Earth (let alone on one particular tribe, or sect, or individual), when the Earth is only a small planet of a small star, and there could be more stars in the Universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches of the whole world.

So I’m certain that the personal God of the average American believer doesn’t exist, and couldn’t possibly exist.

But as for exactly what force is the wellspring of the Universe, and what qualities it has, that’s where I’m a militant agnostic:

“I don’t know, and you don’t know either.”

Scientologists and Mormons in the news

On the one hand, Scientologist Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes split up. On the other, Mormon Mitt Romney heads for the Republican nomination for President. Money shows up in both stories (and as it does in all organized religions), but there are vast differences.

The Mormons have taken their beehive symbol to heart, work hard, and have a centralized bureaucratic government. They tax their people 10%. Mr Romney is in the news for hiding a lot of his fortune in tax-avoidance jurisdictions overseas (Bermuda, the Caymans, etc). Hm. I wonder if he pays his religious tax the way his church wants…?

The other ones, the Scientologists, were established by Science Fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard a couple of years after he famously said that there was no money in writing SF – the way to make money was to start your own religion. Scientologists suck their adherents dry of their entire wealth, and do it on the basis of the most preposterous “bad SF” cosmology that you can imagine, involving an evil overlord from the Andromeda Galaxy imprisoning his people in volcanoes on Earth and blowing them up with Hydrogen Bombs.

(Somewhat in connection with this, Microsoft researcher Cormac Herley has just published a paper showing that Nigerian email scammers make deliberately ludicrous propositions to their targets, as a way of quickly identifying the most stupid and gullible people.)

But the real reason that Katie Holmes is leaving Tom Cruise may have less to do with money than with the upbringing of their 6-year-old daughter Suri. Suri is now reaching the age when she starts getting “security-checked” by the Scientologists. This is their method of simultaneous indoctrination of the child and spying on her family. It is so unsavory that even that unscrupulous media mogul Rupert Murdoch is outspoken about it.

Rupert Murdoch tweets about Scientology

 

You can read some of his tweets here. And not only about Scientology. He was also asked about Mormons, and gave an answer that – from the ones I’ve met – I have to agree with:  “Mormonism a mystery to me, but Mormons certainly not evil.”

As for how much sense there is either of these religions compared with longer-established ones… or compared with a modern scientific view of the universe… well, that can be either a very long discussion, or a very short one. But many people find it endlessly fascinating.

The Reasons for Militant Secularism

There is nothing wrong with people speculating about the nature of the universe, their own existence, and the powerful archetypal imagery that can occur in dreams and waking visions.

Meditation

Follow your bliss. BUT DON’T IMPOSE IT!

There is nothing wrong with people following spiritual or psychological disciplines as part of their personal exploration, or as mandated by a belief system that they have chosen to adhere to – unless like Anders Breivik they use their discipline to turn themselves into psychopathic killers, or in other ways harm others.

But the problem is that there is a natural tendency to spill over from personal spirituality to social action, based on non-physical premises.

  • Then you get children being raised to believe themselves or others to be evil.
  • You get schools failing to educate children with science, but instead teaching the Iron Age myths of our tribal ancestors as fact.
  • You get miseducated adults trying to cure physical diseases by chanting incantations while swinging live chickens over their heads instead of going to a doctor.
  • You get government policies that deny harmless activities and productive relationships to groups and individuals, even if those things are accepted in other societies which are richer and happier.
  • You get scientific research held back on non-scientific grounds.
  • You even get massacres, civil wars, terrorism, international wars. As the saying goes, “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.”

Therefore the US needs to return to the secular origins of its Constitution. And the world’s religious nations should emulate Norway, which recently renounced its centuries-old state religion as no longer an appropriate concern of the state.

Churches are money-making concerns, and of far less social value than retirement homes, private hospitals, bookstores, coffee shops, theaters or cinemas.

Tax them.

Religion, or pornography?

A lot of religious art has a pornographic quality to it. Baby Moses in the bulrushes, with various naked females. Jesus being taken down from the cross, naked and very languid. And, of course, the activities of the Greek and Roman gods…

Derek Santini's "Leda and the Swan"

Santini layers a series of still photos onto ribbed plastic sheeting that creates a hologram-like effect as the viewer passes.

Photographer Derek Santini’s studies of Leda and the Swan made news recently when a London bobby on a bus spotted obscenity inside the Scream art gallery and had the offending work taken down on the spot.

But the problem here was that the policeman wasn’t educated enough to recognize the classical religious reference. Better to stay with the stories that even the cops know.

Next up for Santini… how about that story of the Virgin Mary getting pregnant?

Witchcraft and Magical Thinking

What is religious ritual except witchcraft? You are performing rites with no practical purpose, in an attempt to influence the future outcome of earthly events by either begging from a god (or angel, or demon, or saint, etc) – or else by symbolically replicating the outcome you want by dropping blood where you want rain or dressing up as the animal you want to kill – or else by sacrificing (“making sacred”, i.e. killing or destroying) an animal, child, or other valuable object.

Not all circumcisions are successful

So Abraham hears voices in his head. God tells him to sacrifice his son. He’s ready to do it, when he sees a ram caught in a bush, and the voices tell him to kill that instead. Lucky for the boy. Then God says he’ll make a deal with Abraham: worship Him only, and He’ll favor Abraham’s descendants as the Chosen People. (Seems like a good deal. It’s not being offered to anyone else. Except somehow every people on earth seems to think it’s more special than the others.)

And to prove they’re still committed to the deal, all Abraham’s descendants – forever – have to have their foreskins cut off. Which is a better blood-offering than actually killing yourself or one of your family. But this God is definitely one of the gods that likes to see a bit of blood.

And Abraham, being the first, circumcised himself. Nowadays we would just assume he was insane.

And then there are people like this man in British Columbia who figured things weren’t going right with the family because he hadn’t had his son circumcised. The doctors wouldn’t do it now that the boy was four. The man botched it. The son was hospitalized and is damaged for life. The father was convicted and jailed, and it was noted by the court that he had tried to circumcise himself a couple of years earlier.

So he’s just a lunatic, you say. (But not that different from Abraham.) You can’t apply that criticism to trained religious practitioners, you say.

Strictly speaking, the father is meant to do the circumcision if he’s able, but there’s always someone willing to be paid to do it for you. So there’s the Jewish practitioner, the mohel. Orthodox Judaism prescribes circumcision as a religious ritual, to be performed according to strict Talmudic laws. According to those laws, the mohel must suck the infant’s bleeding penis with his mouth. (How Abraham achieved this isn’t explained.) So when a mohel has a sexually transmitted disease like herpes, might there be a risk? Here’s a report of a two-week-old boy who died in New York, thanks to his mohel.

It’s not just uneducated people whose magical thinking leads to witchcraft and deaths. A religious education can be just as dangerous.

The Miracles, 3 – Walking on the Water

Here’s the story (Matthew 14: 22-33): the fishermen are headed for home at the end of the night, and it’s stormy, and they can’t see where they’re going. Jesus comes walking out to them on the water – Peter jumps over the side to be with him, starts to sink, and Jesus pulls him up.

Jesus walking on the water, the impetuous Peter failing again

The text gives the impression that they were well out from shore, maybe a mile, who knows. But there’s no real context for the story, as usual – no perspective, and no resolution.

The question is always whether we can find an explanation that allows for basic truth in the story (even if it’s been hyped and spun a little, or misremembered or misunderstood) without contradicting the known laws of the universe.

Consider: did Peter now walk the mile back to shore with Jesus? Or did Jesus carry him? Or did one or both get back in the boat, and they sailed in? None of these are mentioned… because none of these needed to happen.

The “sea” in the story is the Sea of Galilee, a lake 10 miles wide. Capernaum, where the fishermen lived, is naturally on this lake. The lakeshore there is low and gently sloping, part beach and part marsh. The beach is mostly rock, some sand, the water is shallow for a fair distance. Let’s assume that then, as now, people protected their boats from storms coming up the lake by building a ‘mole’, a wall of loose rocks not necessarily higher than the lake level, out into the lake.

It’s still dark, the boat’s coming in to shore in a storm, the fishermen can’t see where the beach is, let alone the mole. Jesus comes walking out on the mole to help. Peter jumps over the side of the boat onto the mole, but then loses his footing and falls in (the water may only have been a couple of feet deep), and Jesus helps him up. Then they help guide the boat to the beach, and drag it up.

Years later, when young followers who never met Jesus are asking Peter for stories about what it was like working with him, they get told a slightly exaggerated version. They get, naturally, a fisherman’s story.

Scientology clergy member attacks church leader’s ‘obsession’ with money. Ha!

"Make money. Make more money."

An email on New Year’s Day to 12,000 Scientologists headlined “Keep Scientology Working” according to the British newspaper The Independent, “argues that many of the policies pursued (by) Mr Miscavige are in direct conflict to the principles laid down by (founder and science fiction writer L.Ron) Hubbard when he created the movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In particular (the writer, Debbie Cook) claims that ‘extreme’ fundraising activities are now being ‘driven from within the very highest echelons of the Scientology structure’, in a way that is at odds with the organisation’s founding scriptures. Although many current members have donated vast portions of their net worth to the church, Ms Cook claims that Hubbard never endorsed individual donations of over $75 for lifetime membership.” (See: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/conflict-at-the-heart-of-scientology-is-exposed-in-bitter-email-outburst-6284546.html

This claim about L. Ron Hubbard’s gentle intentions is contradicted by the exhortation by Hubbard in a bulletin to his church officials: “Make money. Make more money. Make others produce so as to make money . . . However you get them in or why, just do it.”  (Quoted in http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Fishman/time-behar.html)

It all comes back to Hubbard’s often-quoted pre-Scientology statement: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” (For a full discussion, see this start-a-religion-faq)

But then, perhaps L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction simply isn’t all that good…