Why and How

Many years ago, a Krishna friend said to me, “People often ask ‘why?,’ when what they really mean is ‘how?’”

Initially, this statement confused me. But he explained it further. It made sense to me. And since that day, I have adopted his stance.

On Yesterday’s show, we had a Christian caller who told us that she believes in god because she has personally witnessed miracles. Matt asked her to give us an example of a miracle. She said there were so many to choose from it would take too much time to go into them. Matt asked her to just give us one example.

If you are an atheist who is ever engaged by Christians, you know that it’s important to get an example of a miracle, because Christians do not agree on what constitutes a “miracle.” Like most other religious terms, the word is meaningless, and pretty much self-defined, along the lines of something like, “love” or “freedom.”

The woman explained her “miracle” pretty thoroughly. But it didn’t take much time to see this woman defines miracle as “a natural/reasonable occurrence that I interpret as a sign from god.” Her definition is not unlike an autobiographical story I once read about a Christian woman who hated the color of carpet in her church. When it was changed out, she knew it was a sign she should marry her fiancé, because, prior to that, she had determined she must be married in that church, but couldn’t bear to be married on that hideous shade of aqua carpeting. Most atheists don’t think of these types of things as “miracles,” so it’s always good to check before assuming when a Christian uses a word that relates to the supernatural. Since none of it is available for examination/verification to anyone—we’re left with the reality that any such term has only the meaning that any individual Christian assigns.

The woman on the phone said her reason for believing in god was that she began asking questions such as “why is the sky blue?” And she prayed ardently to a god (that she didn’t believe in) to let her know if he was there. She also began to research different religions. And she found one that really spoke to her, and became a Christian. So, now, in her words, “I know that I know that I know [there is a god].”

There are some obvious issues with a claim of “not believing” a god exists while I’m repeatedly pleading to that god. But this is already going to be long, so let me jump to where it ties into another obvious problem: the problem of asking for signs from spirit beings to determine whether or not they exist.

In other words, any “sign” I receive as the result of prayer is only open to subjective interpretation, and not to any verification. Christians put forward that it’s wrong to ask for any sort of verifiable miracle or definitive sign. To do so would be “testing” god—a serious no-no. So a person making this sort of plea is open to accepting any sort of subtle influence or coincidence. They’re not asking for Earth-shattering, convincing evidence—just something “meaningful” to them, personally.

What’s the obvious problem? Well, ask them how this sounds to their ears: “If you wanted to know if Big Foot exists, and I told you that I know Big Foot exists because I prayed to god for a sign to let me know if they exist. And after a few days, weeks, and months, I got nothing. So, I started researching Big Foot online—reading all I could find. I also kept on praying and asking to feel assured and have a sign. I prayed and prayed and kept on praying, and reading about Big Foot, until I finally encounter a subtle coincidence—a better job offer, a feeling of euphoria/peace, (or even a video of Big Foot online)—that convinced me god was telling me that Big Foot do, in fact, exist. And so now, I know that I know that I know Big Foot is out there in the woods.”

Would they think I had justification for belief in Big Foot? Or would they think I wanted so badly to believe that I just drilled myself until I finally accepted anything as proof of Big Foot’s existence?

If I want to know if a god exists, why not check into it like I would check into the existence of anything else—of Big Foot? Clearly define what it means to “exist,” exactly what it is I’m seeking, and where it should be found manifesting, then check to see if it’s actually manifesting there in the way I expect. If it’s not, then what I am seeking doesn’t exist. That’s, honestly, the best anyone could do to make a determination of the existence of any item-X. Praying to item-X for assurance it exists makes no sense unless, on some level, I’ve already accepted all sorts of claims about the existence of this item and how it operates—even while I attempt to assure others I haven’t presupposed these claims to be valid. I’m certainly throwing out everything I have learned in life about how to determine whether or not something exists and how to determine truth value, and it appears I’ve also, to some significant degree, accepted all the terms laid down by superstition in my search. And if I was truly skeptical—is this really how I’d go about it? Would I see proof of the validity of a god on supernatural terms? Or would I go with what I know to be tried and true in existent reality?

But that’s a huge digression. Back to “why” and “how.” Definitions can change, I understand. And I will be the first to admit that people I know use “why” and “how,” often, interchangeably. I’m not writing to say “you’re wrong.” I’m writing to call out a subtle difference that may/may not speak to a difference in perspective that an atheist should be aware of when he or she is engaged by a Christian. When the Christian says, “I was asking myself, ‘why is the sky blue?’” I should already be wary, because the Christian is potentially starting off asking the wrong (and potentially very loaded) question. With my prior disqualifier regarding definitions firmly in place, I’m going to appeal now to Webster for a standard, accepted definition.

“Why” is listed as basically meaning: “For what reason, cause, purpose or motive.” “How” is listed as “in what manner, in what way, by what means.”

Can they be used interchangeably? I think so. However, consider this: In a discussion about whether or not the universe is the result of natural causes or intelligent purpose, doesn’t the term “why” carry with it the potential to muddy the waters with presupposition, whereas “how” is more unpresuming and more to the point? If a god did it, “how” will get to that. If a god didn’t do it, “how” will also get to that. But if a god didn’t do it, “why” may or may not get to that—depending on how we’re using it.

Depending on what the Christian means by “why,” the word comes preloaded to presume purpose and motive in creation. When I hear a Christian ask “Why X?,” where X is a natural function, I will say, “I think you mean ‘how’ X.” The less biased and more accurate question is “How is the sky blue?”

We use “why” rather than “how” so often that that last question may sound awkward to some. But I recommend getting used to it. And I recommend pointing out the bias that comes with a preloaded word like “why” when a Christian uses it. “Do you recognize that a more appropriate word would be ‘how’—since ‘why’ presupposes motive in natural functions and causes? You’re potentially already starting off with a bias that the universe has purpose. And since that is the very point of our debate, I have to declare that I don’t know if there is any reason ‘why’ the sky is blue—but I believe we can discuss something of how the sky is blue; and if it leads to a purpose, so be it.”

Am I being over-analytical here? I don’t think so. Consider that the Christian on the phone was responding to Matt’s question about what made her believe a god exi
sts. She answered that she was putting questions to herself, such as “Why is the sky blue?” What does that have to do with god unless you perceive a motive behind the reality that the sky is blue? If Matt had asked her a question about determining truth values or finding the cause of natural realities, then there probably would be no reason to consider the word “why” to have any ulterior meaning beyond it’s interchangeable use with “how.” But in the context of “Why do I believe an intelligent being is behind the natural universe?,” the idea that someone pondered “Why is the sky blue?,” takes on a whole new (pardon the pun) shade of meaning.

Make of it what you will. Draw your own conclusions. If you think I’m being too detailed in analyzing the language people use, then disregard my point entirely. But I find that definitions often are key source of misunderstandings in any discussion with a Christian. And, so, I see no reason to allow for more than will certainly already occur. “Why” has, over the years, become a red flag to me in discussions with Christians. I don’t know there are any “why”s for the things they want to know. But we can talk about “how”s, if they’re ready to investigate nature in an unbiased fashion.

Something from Nothing

There are certain Xian fabrications that just won’t die. It’s like getting one of those bad e-mail claims that you know before you type in “snopes.com” is going to turn out to be a fraud.

It’s a fraud. It’s listed as a fraud at fraud-checking sites. And yet, here it is, again, in your in-box. Often you might get it again a few months later from the same person you sent the snopes link to previously.

On our tv list at ACA, a young person wrote to us to ask some questions. I’m glad he’s asking, but one of his questions started out pretty much saying (and please don’t stop me, even though I know you’ve heard this one before): Even though Big Bang has a lot of good theory behind it, I don’t see how something could come from nothing?

Let’s examing “nothing” in the context of Big Bang: “Nothing” in the theory of Big Bang ever states that something comes from nothing. “Nothing” in Big Bang hints at this. “Nothing” in Big Bang could possibly be confused with this idea that something came from nothing. But like a bad penny, it just keeps coming back: “How can Big Bang say something comes from nothing?”

I pointed out that BB doesn’t say that. That there is a Law of Conservation of Matter that agrees with the boy’s observation that “something” just doesn’t seem to come from “nothing”; and I pointed out that the only model of origins I know that states such a thing is creation ex nihilo or “God made something out of nothing.” And I added that that claim boils down to “magic.”

In other words, if I do a card trick in front of you, and you say, “Wow. How’d you do that?” And I say “Magic!” Are you going to think, “Oh. Now I understand how it’s done.” Or are you going to believe I’ve skirted answering you? Telling you “by magic” (or “by god”) tells you nothing at all.

God has not been examined. This make god an unknown variable. God is, quite frankly, X.

Saying “God did it,” while we have no god to examine, is no different than saying “Let’s plug in X as the origin of the universe.” And when someone says, “How did the universe come to be like it is now?” We can say “X did it”—and that’s all the answer we need.

How is X an answer if we have no way to solve for X?

You don’t take me seriously, but I’m disrespecting YOU?

I found an odd irony in an exchange recently.

On another blog someone asked if atheists can expect fair treatment from presidential candidates who state their religious beliefs are very important to them in their own lives. While I do think it’s possible for a person to value X, but still understand and respect others who don’t value X, I also understand the reason for the question. Some religious people see their views as simply being their own personal choice, and they don’t really extend that outward to consider what other people might choose. Maybe they don’t care what other people choose so long as we’re all getting along OK. But some religious people express real difficulty even understanding how a person could be moral, trustworthy, or honest (with themselves or others) if they aren’t also religious.

Without asking each person, it’s not possible to know how an individual views their beliefs or how they judge others based on the beliefs others may hold. But it made me recollect an online exchange I had, a very brief one, with a theist recently. And here’s why: I was accused of not being objective when I questioned an inference he made. I asked, “…are you claiming [your argument] is a rational justification for belief in the existence of god (any more than it constitutes rational justification for belief in the existence of fairies)?”

The person was pretty obviously offended by my equating his god to fairies. He became defensive. So, I I responded that I wasn’t trying to be funny, that my question was in all seriousness. He never wrote back.

I have no doubt that this person truly felt I was only trying to get a rise. But I can honestly say I never was. He wrote to an atheist list. He knew in advance that atheists do not believe gods exist. Why it would surprise him that I would equate gods to fairies, in that case, and in all seriousness, I cannot fathom. Apparently, I’m supposed to pretend to grant his belief in god a special status over belief in fairies—even when he knows, before he addresses, me that I don’t. And if his arguments support the existence of fairies as much as the existence of gods, I’m not supposed to notice that or ask about it.

In other words, by expressing my perspective of god’s existence, and by not accepting his view as a given, I’m being offensive. If I say that I—honestly—can’t see how fairies wouldn’t be proven just as much as gods by the arguments he’s providing, I’m not being serious, and I’m just being a jerk. But what’s really happening is that this theist isn’t taking MY position seriously. I REALLY do not see the difference between his belief in god and a belief in fairies. And he refuses to accept that as a serious assertion on my part—even though it is asserted in 100 percent seriousness. Am I offended by that? No. After all, I didn’t go to a theist forum to push my view on anyone. What do I care what he thinks? I was just responding and asking what I thought was a fair question about claims he was making.

But, how does this tie into respect? Well, I respected his belief by treating it like any other. He didn’t care too much for that. But if he’d have come to me saying he could prove fairies, and given me the same arguments he provided for gods, I would just as well have asked, “How would this not also prove leprechauns?” And so on. Would it be offensive to compare fairies to leprechauns in that case—just because someone actually believes in them?

If I can’t even ask a question without being considered an ass; if I can’t give my view without being considered an offensive jerk; If my perspective is automatically interpreted as sarcasm and cruel joking, even though it’s not. How is THAT respect for MY belief (or in this case, lack of it)? What if, instead of asking him how his claim for god did any less to prove fairies exist, I had written back and said, “Well, if you’re just going to write to us with ludicrous claims, trying to be funny about ‘god exists’—I mean, what sort of idiots do you take us for? You can go send your joke e-mails about gods existing to someone else’s list you arrogant prick!”

THAT’S respect? I asked a serious question. He blanketly refused to take me seriously. And it appears to me that he is totally incapable of taking my view seriously on any level. Yet, somehow, that makes ME disrespectful of HIS beliefs.

While I’m not concerned about one online theist, I have to wonder how many others feel this way, or how many politicians share this view? That is a concern. Not an offense (to me, at least), but a real concern.

One Nation Under God

“It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God.’ I didn’t.”

–Barak Obama, “Call to Renewal” Keynote Address, June 28, 2006.

This quote was featured this morning on another atheist blog I frequent, Austin Cline’s atheism.about.com section.

Austin makes some good points, and points most of the people who visit this blog spot would probably think of themselves. That the phrase is openly discriminatory toward atheists, and that it furthers the disenfranchisement of atheists in our culture.

I certainly don’t disagree. Although, if I’m going to be honest, I personally also never felt that the Pledge thrust religion or monotheism upon me as a youngster. I honestly don’t believe that any child will become monotheistic by being compelled to say the Pledge every morning and recite the phrase “One Nation Under God.”

Let me be clear, however, that I acknowledge that the insertion of the phrase is completely in violation of the Establishment of Religion clause, and should be removed, if on no other grounds than that.

Also, just because the phrase never offended me, personally, I certainly don’t take issue with anyone else feeling uncomfortable with it. How it makes a person feel is just that–how it makes them feel. It’s not wrong to have feelings or to acknowledge them. And just because I don’t share a person’s feelings, doesn’t invalidate their feelings, or my lack of them.

So, it is a phrase that at the very least violates our Constitution and, therefore, our law, and also that may offend some citizens who like to think that they are just as patriotic as any theist, or that they don’t want their children compelled to say this any more than a Christian would want their child compelled to say “One Nation Without a God.”. And these are real problems.

In my humble view, however, as someone who has dialogued with quite a lot of theists, neither of these things comes close to what I consider to be the real harm caused by the insertion of this phrase into our Pledge of Allegiance. What disturbs me beyond these two very real concerns? The fact that there is a group of very vocal, very politically active theists, specifically Christians, who would insert this phrase and similar phrases all over our government and our government-sponsored public institutions in order to promote the view that we are, on some level, a theocracy.

The last time I was on AE, Matt Dillahunty pointed out that if a person says “This is a Christian nation,” and they mean by that that our citizens, by and large, are Christians, they are correct. If they mean by that that the vast majority of early Americans and founders of the United States were Christians or monotheists along Christian lines, they are correct. If, however, they mean by that that our laws are based upon the Bible, and that Biblical authority or Christian authority supersedes Constitutional authority, they couldn’t be more wrong, (and, I would add, perhaps dangerous).

I know that by posting this, I’m preaching to the choir. And I have no intention of launching into arguments that already plaster the Internet regarding why I disagree with the theocratic stance. I’m only writing to address that, to me, it is unwise to ignore a growing group who vocally express a wish to enforce their religion upon the rest of our society. And it is unwise to believe that simply because I’m not feeling particularly offended by something, it’s not potentially threatening or harmful. Did anyone see the early push that Huckabee got in the primaries? Anyone who thinks there isn’t a growing movement for theocracy in the Christian community isn’t paying attention. And anyone who isn’t concerned by that isn’t thinking it through to the end. Even Christians should fear that concept, because, historically speaking, believers haven’t been particularly kind even to other believers when they aren’t in complete doctrinal agreement.

I’m not going to slam Obama as a uniquely insensitive or unaware, here. I’m sure Obama isn’t the only person–or politician–to share this sentiment. I actually have heard many atheists say the same thing: “It doesn’t bother me, why get all worked up over it? It’s harmless recitation.” But to that, I have to respond that there is a larger world out there, beyond me and how I feel. And it would be wise of us all to take notice of how others around us “feel,” because we might find they feel that our government should require us to adopt, if not their beliefs, at least their behaviors with regard to their religious perspectives. And they use these seemingly innocuous items to promote that agenda. Since it shouldn’t be there in the first place, by law, is it wise to endorse it, retain it, or defend it as “inoffensive,” while supporters of a U.S. theocracy begin to rally and test their power?

I’m thinking, “not.”

The Impact of Explanatory Function on Existence: Show #520

For some time I’ve been considering the idea that Christian apologists argue both sides of any issue and call it proof of god or of their doctrine’s validity. Examples would be “faith” versus “reason,” or “god answers prayers” versus “sometimes god answers prayers ‘no,’” or “the world is perfectly suited to human life” versus “the world is an awful place to live because of the horrors we face due to the infiltration of sin via Adam’s disobedience,” and so on.

These no-lose situations reminded me of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, that I have come to refer to as “Brian’s Dilemma.” Here is how it works: Brian is trying to convince the masses he’s not the messiah. He says something like, “I’m not the messiah.” And someone in the crowd replies that, “Only the true messiah would deny his own divinity.” Then Brian says, “OK–I am the messiah.” And someone else in the crowd shouts, “Behold! The messiah!”

If everything is proof of X–no matter what the situation or outcome–then nothing can compromise my belief in X. There is no argument or evidence that can penetrate that. But I have to accept the absurdity of my stance that Y=X and –Y=X.

Brian understood that, logically, if only the true messiah would deny his own divinity, then the crowd must reject him as the messiah if he made then made the claim that he was, in fact, the messiah. But Brian overestimated the logical capacity of the masses. He was in a surreal, absurd no-lose (or, in his case no-win) situation–exactly the same situation apologists set up to prove the existence of their god and the validity of their doctrines.

But beyond this absurd apologetic setup is an interesting segue into explanatory power and what X “accounting for” something actually means to the existence of X.

Around this time, I came across two items that also noted the significance of this idea:

http://atheism.about.com/b/a/194807.htm

Austin Cline wrote (regarding parapsychology–not religion): “Hyman’s Categorical Imperative states: Do not try to explain something until you are sure that there is something to be explained. (Quoted from Ray Hyman) Unfortunately, parapsychology appears to be one massive violation of what Hyman advises. There is no particularly good reason to think that there is anything “paranormal” to explain in the first place, much less that parapsychology has anything substantive to offer in terms of explaining human experiences or the universe.”

George Smith, in his book “Why Atheism?” wrote (quoting Thomas Aquinas): “What can be accomplished by a few principles is not effected by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle, which is nature, and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle, which is human reason or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.” (From Summa Theologica).

Just to clarify, Aquinas is simply restating a counterapologetic in this passage and not putting forward this argument himself–as he was an apologist.

Smith considers this as a rephrasing of Occam’s Razor. However, he finds it an odd thing, to imply “that Occam’s Razor, when used to argue that ‘there is no need to suppose God’s existence,’ is relevant to the claim that ‘God does not exist.’ In other words, if there is no cognitive reason to posit the existence of God, if what needs to be explained can be explained by more economical means, then we may conclude that God does not exist.”

Of course, Smith understands that “failure to justify the need for God as an explanatory principle cannot prove his nonexistence,” and “the real existence of a being…does not depend on whether our concept of that being is necessary for explanatory purposes.”

Smith describes belief in Santa. Santa’s main explanatory function is that he is the cause of the many presents under our Christmas trees on Christmas morning. And there is a huge conspiracy one has to overcome to overcome belief in Santa–not just mom and dad, but commercial outlets, media outlets, TV weather tracking (the sleigh’s flight), the postal service (not returning mail to the “North Pole”), and so on. Everyone at every level of our society seems to be a conspirator. And yet one glimpse of those presents in our parents’ closet from “Santa,” and no authoritative claims can hold us to that belief any longer. We don’t rationalize that Santa must simply be using our parents as a means to deliver the presents. (But we do tend to do that for god. And I’m not sure why.)

Smith addresses logical versus material “possibility”–mainly to explain that “logically possible” has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not a thing actually exists–which cannot be too strongly stressed. Both Santa and god are logically possible. But just as the packages sitting under the tree don’t need Santa in order to exist, neither has anyone shown that nature requires god as an explanation. In fact, “nature exists” provides just as much information as “god causes nature to exist,” since nobody has provided any specifics on what “god” is or how exactly it created the cosmos. The answer amounts to “it all got here by some sort of mysterious magic.”

What does it say about the existence of Santa or god if there is no perceptual difference whether either exists or not–if they serve no explanatory function? Once we know the presents will appear with or without Santa–what does that mean for us, intellectually? What would be our reasoning behind assuming X exists, if we perceive nothing of X?

I refer anyone to Carl Sagan’s “The Dragon in My Garage,” if you aren’t already familiar with it, as it beautifully illustrates this point:

http://www.godlessgeeks.com/LINKS/Dragon.htm

What Does it say about the existence of X if the world would operate in exactly the same way with or without X? What would be the reasoning behind a claim that X exists? Are we actually using god as an explanation for things that require no explanation? I reviewed the concept of “god answers prayers” that I found at this site, which breaks “how god answers prayer” into categories:

http://www.god-answers.org/Online_Tools/Sermons/PRAYER.htm

I addressed how these “answers” are identical to the results one would get without prayer. In the first category, “god answers prayer through his inspired word,” Christians would find comfort in reading their Bibles whether or not there was any divine intervention, because they believe in god and find comfort in that belief–whether it’s true or not. In the second category, “god answers prayer through natural law,” if natural law is an answer to prayers, it’s fairly obvious that a natural result would occur whether or not one prayed. In the third category, “god answers prayer though people and situations,” it’s very similar to the second; people help one another out all the time–whether or not prayers are incorporated. The fourth category was interesting, as it presumes both a dilemma and a solution, neither of which are not observable or verifiable: God answers prayers “in his own mind” by forgiving sins. Finally, in the event that the prayer is not answered, the Christian should presume god answered “no.” And the Christian is further advised in all prayer situations to “pray like everything depends on god and work like everything depends on you.”

But, if I work to achieve my goals as though I’m completely on my own–how does that differ fro
m how I’d work if I actually was completely on my own? Isn’t the underlying theme in both scenarios simply that “the harder I work to achieve my goals, the more likely I am to actually achieve them”? Does that require a supernatural explanation?

But even with all my hard work, in both scenarios, I still can fail. Remember: Sometimes god answers “no.” Sometimes I get what I want or need, and sometimes I don’t. Interestingly, this is exactly the case for those who do not pray. Why employ a divine explanation for an event that works the same way without divine intervention? Are we simply using god as an explanation for something that requires no explanation?

Creationism/ID also lacks explanatory function while additionally presenting Brian’s Dilemma; however, Brian’s Dilemma, in this case, isn’t even necessary–as Creationism presumes a dilemma that does not appear to even exist (much like the “forgiveness of sins” prayer scenario described earlier).

Creationism/ID posits that the universe, in all its precision, is proof of an intelligent/divine creator who built it for the sole purpose of creating a haven for perfect human existence. But if we point out what would count as flaws in that supposition–such as birth defects, plagues, or tsunamis, we’re told that flaws do indeed exist, because of sin. Ironically, the Creationist and the atheist agree the universe is not a utopia–that it is not perfectly suited to solely and completely benefit humans. Creationists, however, put forward that it was utopian at an earlier stage. Is it necessary to posit that the universe used to be utopian–but later fell into sin and fault–when we could, more easily, acknowledge that universe has probably never been ideally suited to sustain utopian human existence? Aren’t we, in the Creationist scenario, simply using god as an explanation for things that don’t require an explanation?

By making the first unfounded assertion, that the universe should be utopian, we then create the need for the additional explanation for why it’s not utopian. But why claim it was ever utopian in the first place?

If no god had a hand in the formation of this universe, it would make sense that some parts would suit some life–but other parts would not. It makes sense from a naturalistic perspective that when any sort of life arises in this huge, broiling, mostly inhospitable cosmos, that the environment would have to be at least somewhat hospitable–but necessarily utopian? I see no basis for that assertion. And, coincidentally, we all seem to agree that “suitable,” but not “utopian,” is exactly what we’re dealing with in observable reality. But, to support the explanatory need for god, Christians must assert it necessarily used to be utopian.

I also briefly addressed the ID claim of “specified complexity.” One site called it an “unambiguously objective standard” put forward by William Dembski:

http://www.origins.org/articles/indesignfaq.html

“Instead of looking for such vague properties as ‘purpose’ or ‘perfection’–which may be construed in a subjective sense–it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.”

I looked up “specified complexity” to see whether or not I agreed it was an “unambiguously objective standard”:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specified_complexity

“Dembski argues that it is impossible for specified complexity to exist in patterns displayed by configurations formed by unguided processes. Therefore, Dembski argues, the fact that specified complex patterns can be found in living things indicates some kind of guidance in their formation, which is indicative of intelligence.”

So, we first assume pattern X cannot naturally occur. We then find pattern X in nature. And rather than acknowledge that, “Well, I’ll be dogged–it does occur in nature,” we simply say that what we’re observing is not possible–even as it sits right before our eyes–and that it actually has to be the handiwork of a god–since our original assumption that this can’t occur in nature can’t possibly be incorrect.

Not only is that not objective, it’s poor, poor science. If a scientist hypothesizes X cannot do Y, then observes X doing Y, he must acknowledge his hypothesis is in error. For example, if I hypothesize that no animal can exist without a brain in nature, and I then discover jellyfish, is it more reasonable for me to assume that my original hypothesis was incorrect, or that jellyfish are unnatural divine manifestations?

Holding to what we believe in the face of independently verifiable, observable facts to the contrary is not an admirable character trait in anyone, but it is most especially egregious for someone commenting in the field of science.

All roads will necessarily lead to god when we start out with the presupposition that the proposition “there is no god” is an absolute impossibility. To such a Christian, there is simply no way the universe can exist without a god; and so, to this Christian, the universe requires a god–no matter what happens in the universe or in what state the universe exists. But even if the Christian could be presented with a universe scenario that would exclude the possibility of an existent god, it’s highly probable that this scenario would simply be set aside as a “mystery,” to be explained later, after we’re all dead—like so many other Christian “mysteries.”

When god becomes the default plug-in explanation for “whatever it is–however it is,” then god can no longer be differentiated from “whatever is.” And god is rendered, in such a case, as serving no explanatory purpose of any kind, exactly like Santa and Sagan’s Dragon, except that god has managed, somehow, to avoid their fate as recognized nonexistent items. Perhaps that’s a mystery that will be explained later, after we’re all dead?

Taoism

Show #516 on Sunday, September 2, was a response to two items of viewer mail that the TV list received. Jeremy wrote initially to say he is a “religious atheist,” which he described as adhering to a secularized Taoism (pronounced Daoism). Within one week’s time another piece of mail came through addressing the issue of “where do atheists get meaning” in life?

In addition to these two letters, we have received numerous contacts from people asking “Why do you only always focus on Christianity?” Although Matt has addressed this in the past, I felt that a show exploring secular Taoism might be relevant on multiple fronts, and so chose that as the topic for #516.

The form of Taoism that is most prevalent, and with which most of us are familiar, is attributed to Lao Tzu. Lao Tzu may or may not have ever actually lived. But the text he is said to have written goes back about 2,500 years. The name “Lao Tzu” actually means “Old Man,” and it is doubtful that anyone named Lao Tzu authored the major Taoist work, Tao te Ching.

The Tao te Ching is a small collection of poetic Chinese sayings meant to describe the Tao and its operation. The title means literally, “The Book (Ching) of the application of (te) The Way (Tao).” And Tao, literally, means “The Way.” If you read the book, you will not find any list of “dos” and “don’ts.” There are no laws to memorize, and no condemnation or threats. The passages all sound something like this (#43):

The softest thing in the universeOvercomes the hardest thing in the universe.That without substance can enter where there is no room.Hence I know the value of non-action.

“Tao” does not mean “The Way” in the sense that we think of it in Christian models. It isn’t a way to achieve salvation. In fact, Taoists don’t believe in salvation. They wouldn’t understand what they need to be saved from—because they don’t interpret life, death or the natural world to be particularly problematic or flawed. They consider it to be simply, “the way” it is. In fact, “the way” it is, is what “The Way” (Tao) normally seems to represent. A reed is flexible—that is “The Way” (or Tao) of the reed.

Because the verses are so amorphous and malleable, they are interpreted in a number of ways by different people. However, this is not considered a problem for the Taoist—who believes that following his own Tao will quite naturally differ greatly from someone else following hers. It does not represent a single path for all of mankind—but a way of looking at life that will help each individual find the path that is right for him or her. It isn’t a mode of enlightenment or special knowledge. It is an affirmation that if one is willing to examine his/her life and motives, he/she can come to an understanding of what direction is best for himself.

Taoism prefers accommodation, flexibility, and seemless integration. The example I used on the program was one of Green Architecture. To build my house on a landscape means to impose myself upon that landscape. A Taoist would do his/her best to utilize the landscape in the most efficient way to support the house, while at the same time taking the environment into consideration as he/she plans his/her house.

Taoism is not concerned with universal origins and makes no claims about how the cosmos were constructed or when they began. Taoism only notes that the cosmos exist and appear to operate under observable laws, which are best used to one’s advantage rather than resisted. A counterweight would be an excellent example. When one has to lift a heavy object, one must oppose the natural force of gravity; but by applying a counterweight, we can actually use gravity to work for us, rather than struggling against it. With a counterweight, gravity can “lift” a heavy object for us.

Duality is another factor in Taoism. We understand that concepts like good necessarily indicate “not good” (or “evil” if you prefer to call it that). But duality goes beyond opposites. In Taoism, it is not so much a statement of X and -X, as it is X and nonX. In other words, there is no “opposite” to Tracie. But there is much that is “not Tracie.” So, the universe is divided, in the Taoist view, by what is Tracie and what is “not Tracie.” Likewise, the universe divides, dualistically, in any number of similar ways with regard to any “thing” you care to define.

I wrapped the show describing some personal views about Taoism from professed Taoists. And I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to get as many personal views as possible, to get an idea of how flexible this philosophy actually is. One can only really speak generally of it, as even the Tao te Ching not only fails to—but outright refuses to—define what Taoism is. According to the book, it is “nameless”—personally discerned—and cannot be accurately defined or described. Some have made the leap to call it “god.” But there is no direct indication that Lao Tzu was describing anything other than natural forces and pragmatic observations.

For further reading, I would actually recommend obtaining a copy of the Tao te Ching—perhaps at a local library (for free). The book is brief and, if you like poetry, actually somewhat relaxing to read. An annotated version with some historic reference would be preferable to a cold read if you are entirely unfamiliar with Eastern philosophy or have never read any similar texts. As timeless as it may seem to me, I have to admit that with any text, context is also important with the Tao te Ching.

Ugarit and the Bible

On a few past episodes we looked at some of the gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Among them, Asherah, Nehushtan, Ba’al, Yahweh, and El.

Many people are familiar with the texts found at Qumran, commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the 1940s. But fewer people have heard of the Ugarit findings, which began to be unearthed in the late 1920s. Both discoveries greatly increased our knowledge and understanding of Biblical texts and also of the history surrounding the evolution of Judaism and Christianity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls impacted both the Old and New Testament interpretations, while the findings at Ugarit impacted only the Old Testament. These texts and architectural inscriptions predate the Hebrew settlement at Canaan, but interestingly, they mention some of the same gods that appear in the Hebrew religious writings, produced after the Hebrew contact with the Ugarit region. The most significant god mentioned is El. In one temple inscription he is said to be the father of Ba’al. In other mentions, he is even the father of Yaweh.

In the Old Testament, Ba’al is associated with the Canaanites. And he is described as the focus of their religious worship in those stories—while El is described as being another name for Yahweh, the Hebrew patron god. In reality, however, based on the discoveries at Ugarit (the land called Canaan in the Bible), El is clearly the father of the gods in much the same way that Zeus is the head of the gods on Olympus in Greek mythology. And Yaweh is not another name for El, but a separate deity. Like Zeus, El headed a pantheon. He was not only the father of mankind, but the leader of the Ugarit gods. His pantheon, in Ugarit, is called the Elohim (literally, the plural of El).

Using the book of Genesis as an example, the best scholarly estimates date it back to somewhere between 950 and 500 BC. It appears that the writings were composed in two styles, one style preferring to refer to god as El and the other using YHWH (or Yahweh). Eventually these texts came together into the form we have today, sometime around 450 BC. Just to give some perspective, the best documented time in the Ugarit history was between 1450 and 1200 BC.

According to many modern apologists, El is simply another name for god, or even a generic word for “god” used by the Hebrews; and Elohim is simply another form of El. However, Bible translators do translate Elohim as plural in some instances and do translate El to be a proper noun in some instances. Some apologists defend a wholly singular usage of Elohim by pointing to the inconsistency with which Elohim is used with singular verb forms; however, this does not rule out the very real (and likely) potential that as monotheism evolved out of polytheism, the Hebrew texts were adjusted to correct for this problem (as we discussed the evolution of the book of Genesis in the above paragraph). However, it does seem oddly coincidental—and difficult to overlook—that the Hebrews had significant contact with Canaan and then, some years afterward, wrote out a Hebrew religious mythology using a name for god that parallels the Ugarit mythology’s chief deity. It is also odd that Elohim appears in Ugarit texts as a clearly plural form of El, and then later in a sometimes confused singular/plural fashion in the Hebrew texts.

The important question becomes, then: Is there any reason beyond the contact with Canaan to view the Hebrew deity as being synonymous with the Canaanite god El? The answer is “yes.” There are parallels between the two gods. For example, if we look at more of the attributes of El in the Ugarit texts, we find that El had a consort, Asherah (who was also, occasionally, recorded as the consort to Yahweh). This would appear to distance the Hebrew El from the Ugarit El then, if there is no mention of the Hebrews combining El with Asherah. However, there is mention in the Hebrew texts that illustrates that Asherah was connected with El in the minds of the Hebrews as well as in their worship. Twice in Jeremiah (chapter 7 and chapter 44), she is referred to as the Queen of Heaven, and it is clearly indicated that the Hebrews were worshipping her in those instances. Also, in 2 Kings 18, it is noted that her objects of worship (the Asherah poles) were removed from the “high places” of worship to El/Yahweh.

There is no doubt that as the Hebrews moved from polytheism, into henotheism, and ultimately into monotheism, that they adjusted their religious practices accordingly. It is not surprising that the worship of Asherah was ultimately condemned, discouraged, and forbidden. But what can’t be ignored is the fact that the Hebrews did acknowledge Asherah. They did worship her. And they did associate her with El by placing her symbols in the same temples of worship. If Hebrews did not adopt the older Ugarit El, with which they were surely familiar, then it is very odd that Asherah also appears in their religious texts and worship.

I would never underestimate the apologist’s ability to find a perspective that can reinterpret this data to make it less problematic. However, the clear and simply explanation is this: The Hebrews interacted with Ugarit, adopted their pantheon, and their religion evolved, as all religions do through time, to become a uniquely Hebrew monotheism.

Further Reading:
http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9074104/Ugarit
[General information about Ugarit]

http://www.theology.edu/ugarbib.htm
[Describes similarities and parallels between Biblical texts and Ugarit texts]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genesis
[Describes the production of Genesis]

http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05393a.htm
[Presents an apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]

http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Elohim/elohim.html
[Another apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]

http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9009821/Asherah
[Identifies Asherah as El’s consort]

http://cc.usu.edu/~FATH6/bible.htm
[Information about Asherah]

http://www.religion.rutgers.edu/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=188
[Asherah as the Queen of Heaven]

Episode #512: Intolerance

I have gotten some requests for show notes on occasion. In response, I’m going to begin posting summary notes to the blog, so that when requests for notes come in, I can just point them here. Thanks, Martin.

The word “tolerance” has two very distinct meanings that can, but do not always, overlap. One is to respect others or their actions and beliefs. The other is to merely allow others to act and express their beliefs—regardless of whether or not I, personally, respect them, their beliefs or actions.

It is unreasonable to expect that no one will disagree with my opinions or ideas. In fact, there are many ideas that are so widely disrespected that they are almost universally disdained. The ideas expressed by Hitler or NAMBLA not only lack widespread acceptance; they are openly disparaged by the general population; and the actions they promote are legally prohibited. So, in either sense of the word, they are not “tolerated.” The ideas they espouse are not generally respected; and the actions they endorse are not allowed. No society exercises absolute tolerance by either definition. And expecting any belief, value or idea to be universally respected is simply unrealistic.

The goal in the United States—and I realize it’s not always achieved—is to allow the individual the right to believe and act freely insofar as his/her actions do not compromise the rights of fellow citizens. We value, in this country, the right of Freedom of Speech—aka Freedom of Expression. We all have the right to express our ideas and opinions to the extent we don’t violate someone else’s rights. Freedom of Speech can violate someone else’s rights when, for example, I seriously threaten to harm or kill someone for exercising a legal action or expressing an idea or opinion.

My right to say what’s on my mind is limited when it forcibly stops others from exercising legal actions or expressing ideas and opinions. In the public forum, I can disagree, disparage, ridicule, challenge, even insult; but I cannot try to silence the free expression of others. I must tolerate (allow) all expressions, in the sense that I must respect—not the expression itself, or even the person expressing it—but the right of other person to express. And that freedom extends to responses as well. In the real world, no idea, opinion or belief is universally respected or accepted. If I don’t want my ideas challenged, then I should carefully consider whether or not I want to express them in a public forum; because the public has a right to respond, and I need to respect that right, even if I disrespect the content of the responses I might receive.

In the show, I referenced the following:

http://www.powers-point.com/2006/10/intolerant-atheist.html
-Karen Powers

“I always like to point out to my many atheist friends that I have never tried to convert them or ridicule their beliefs, but have been on the receiving ends of dozens of rants against my belief system…something that feels a lot like the person is trying to “convert” me to their way of life (atheism) all the while accusing religious people of being intolerant.”

Here Karen equates attempts to convert with intolerance. First of all, an attempt at conversion does not impede Karen’s right to believe or act. No matter how badly someone wants Karen to do X or believe X, simply talking to her about X cannot force her to do either. She is correct, though, that it can show a level of disrespect for the beliefs she holds currently when someone tries to change her mind. Atheists understand this from dealing with apologists; just as Karen understands this from her atheist friends. But I’m free to respond that I disagree with them, as is Karen, and also to express why I disagree, as is Karen. I’m also free to not listen to them if I so choose, as is Karen. No harm, no foul.

Karen’s post was not the only one addressed, but it was representative of what is found when you look up “atheist intolerance” on the Internet. The main complaint is that atheists don’t publicly respect theists or theism. But, again, that’s the case with any belief—none are universally respected. I’m unsure, though, why that’s a problem. No one requires my stamp of approval in order to do or believe whatever they want. If I express that what someone else does or believes is silly or stupid, it has no impact whatsoever on their right or ability to continue to do or believe it. There is, in fact, no reason whatsoever for anyone to care what anyone else thinks about what they do or believe—if the assessment extends no further than a mere personal opinion.

Fortunately, with regard to atheists, most of the people I know in the community really don’t care what Christians “believe,” despite the fact we get weekly letters asking us why it bothers us so much that other people believe in god. It actually doesn’t bother most atheists that theists believe in god. What tends to bother atheists is when any particular religious group tries to impose it’s beliefs upon the rest of the population—either via legislation or via other means of policing public policy (legal or otherwise). When theists try to dictate my behavior so that it is in line with their theistic doctrines, this imposes on my individual rights and freedoms—granted to me by the Constitution. Constitutionally, I have as much right to choose my beliefs and actions as any other citizen in this country.

The show included numerous readings from theists who felt that atheists should not exercise their Freedom of Speech. Perhaps the best example was the transcript of a Paula Zahn Now! show:

http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0701/31/pzn.01.html

In this episode, real venom was aimed at atheists and atheism. I don’t mind people aiming venom. Again, so long as they let others live their lives, I don’t care what they think or how vehemently they think it or express it. But a line is crossed when they begin telling others to “shut up.” Attempting to demand that others stop expressing ideas, opinions, and beliefs—is the beginning of intolerance. Criticize ideas however you like—but don’t tell others they need to stop exercising their Constitutional right of Freedom of Speech. Each of us has as much right to express our ideas as anyone else has to criticize them. I’m happy to dialogue—but “shut up” isn’t a dialogue. It’s an expressed wish to monologue publicly, without public challenge or response. And that’s the way to shut down public debate—which is simply hypocritical, cowardly and not in the best interest of maintaining a free and open society.

One particularly interesting statement made on the program was when Karen Hunter said, “Don’t impose upon my right to want to have prayer in schools, to want to say the pledge of allegiance…”

First of all, nobody can impose on anyone else’s right to “want” something. But as far as her right to actually have it—nobody has imposed on that, either. Anyone is legally allowed to pray and say the Pledge of Allegiance in any nondisruptive way, and I have yet to meet any atheist who opposes this. However, theists are not Constitutionally allowed to impose prayers upon nonadherents, and they are out of line to add narrow religious statements into a pledge that is intended to be used by the entire nation. This imposes a pledge to monotheism/religion upon all citizens who would like to also be able to say the Pledge to their nation. There is no reason the Pledge should not be accessible to all citizens equally. It should not apply only to those citizens who adhere to the idea of a monotheistic deity. Again, Karen’s right to express her beliefs should end where the right of others to express themselves begins. According to Karen, it’s perfectly acceptable for me to have to choose
between pledging loyalty to her religious beliefs and pledging loyalty to my country. But if no mention of god was contained in the Pledge, there would be no imposition to either theistic or atheistic Americans. That’s the difference. The insertion of the monotheistic god into the Pledge was a move in the 1950s that continues to alienate some very patriotic citizens in the U.S. to this day. And it is logical that a national Pledge should as much as possible unite, and not divide the citizenry.

I ended with a reading of several articles, all published in the last month, that gave examples of Christians being intolerant by attempting to disallow others to exercise legal actions or express beliefs. Examples included death threats to J.K. Rowling, threats of harm to a library for a summer program that included workshops on astrology, a bomb planted at a women’s clinic, a man who murdered another man because his victim was gay, attempted book bannings at a school library by one mother, an attempted ban on Sunday liquor sales, and a disruptive protest during a Hindu prayer before the U.S. Senate. There were more articles, but we didn’t have time to address them all.

While I acknowledged on the show that this behavior is not representative of the vast majority of Christians; it is fair to ask why, when this sort of religious thought-control and behavior-control intolerance is covered in the U.S. media, it appears to be almost exclusively attempted by Christian adherents? And why, if that is the case, are atheists the ones consistently labeled as “intolerant”—most often merely for legally exercising their Freedom of Speech by criticizing ideas with which they disagree?