Batman Begins, Gotham and Gomorrah: (Shows #556 & 562)

I have gotten repeated requests to provide some sort of summary on this two-part program. I’ve been slow to provide it, because, frankly, it’s a lot of material. But here goes:

This show was billed as “How Batman Begins is based on the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah.” However, it is fairer to say it shares many commonalities with the tale. I have nothing from the writers of this film indicating they intended a modern retelling of the tale—but a modern retelling of the tale it is, intentional or not.

Background on Sodom and Gomorrah:
The myth of Sodom’s and Gomorrah’s destruction is found in Genesis, chapters 18 and 19. It is a simple plot. God comes down to meet his loyal subject Abraham. God shares his plans to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He has heard reports that the cities are—well, actually I’m not sure what he’s heard specifically. What the cities are guilty of is never clearly revealed. Basically, He’s heard that they’ve been very, very naughty. And he plans to investigate the allegations, after which, he’ll know for sure if what he’s heard is true.

God never states that he has any intention of destroying the cities, but Abraham gets that impression, and Yahweh doesn’t dispute him. Abraham has a history of unquestioning obedience to Yahweh (look up “Abraham and Isaac”). But here, the same man who would have murdered his own son as a human sacrifice to God points out that god’s plan could be considered unjust. Abraham’s plea amounts to the idea that there must be good people in the city, and that god, righteous as he is, would never kill good people in his lust for vengeance against those who are, for whatever reason, judged to be wicked. Abraham, being for a moment almost a humanist, tries to reason with Yahweh to save the cities by appealing to His pride and reputation (it should stand out that he doesn’t attempt an appeal to Yahweh’s compassion), “Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked…Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

In what is perhaps the most famous aspect of the story, Abraham bargains with god to spare the cities for the sake the righteous. Yahweh says he will spare them if he can find 10 such people. Later, the cities are destroyed without any confirmation whatsoever in the story of how many “righteous people” were found. Actually, there’s no account of any attempt at investigation on Yahweh’s part to try to determine the number of “righteous people” in the cities. We go straight from the scene where God tells Abraham he’ll spare the city for 10 righteous people, to a new scene where two angels (who had accompanied Yahweh during his visit to Abraham’s) are imploring Lot and his family to leave the doomed locales. Lot is Abraham’s nephew, who lives in the area. So, without any recorded tally of righteous people, the cities are marked for destruction.

If I assume, as most Christians do, there were less than 10 righteous people in the cities, it still appears that, like the myth of The Flood, children don’t count. There is no indication in the myth that any children were spared, pitied, or even considered for the briefest moment.

We’re left to guess what the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah might have been and to guess how many righteous people Yahweh was ultimately willing to destroy for the sake of vengeance. But that’s the tale in a nutshell.

The Characters of the Bible Story:
Yahweh (and his angels): Powerful, supernatural being bent on the vengeful destruction of the cities after judging them wicked beyond salvation. Spiritual “father” to Abraham.

Abraham: Loyal follower of Yahweh who tries to intervene to save the cities for the sake of the righteous.

Lot: Abraham’s nephew who lives in the area.

The Wicked: They make a brief appearance as a mob who mean to inflict harm on Lot’s angel guests.

The Righteous: Never make an appearance. In some sense Lot and some of his family may be part of this group.

The Storyteller: The Hebrew adherent who puts forward the story and creates the other characters in conjunction with the spiritual beliefs of the religious institution of which he is a part.

The Characters of the Film:
Batman Begins has pretty much the same roster.

Ra’s al Ghul: Leader of a powerful organization (that shrouds itself in the trappings of supernatural power) bent on the destruction of the city of Gotham. According to Ra’s, “Gotham’s time has come…the city has become a breeding ground for suffering and injustice. It is beyond saving and must be allowed to die.” He claims the right of judge, jury and executioner. Ra’s is not portrayed as a compassionate humanist. He admits to Bruce openly that he is motivated by “vengeance.” Another clear parallel with Yahweh of the Bible.

It is important to note that while I initially identified Ra’s as correlating to “god” in the story, he actually appears to be the equivalent of the religious leader, who creates the character of god in order to empower his will and justify his actions. If we take the Bible story as fact, then Ra’s is playing the role of god—but the correlation then fails immediately, as Ra’s is not really supernatural, but only a very powerful man who feigns supernatural ability and immortality.

To the Christian viewer, Ra’s would be an imposter god, and, therefore, unjustified in his actions toward Gotham. This would produce a disconnect that would allow a Christian to accept the message of the film as not being critical of his god’s actions in Sodom. In other words, god acted rightly toward Sodom and Gommorah for no other reason than he is god. Ra’s, being a mere mortal, would not be justified in judging or meting out justice upon Gotham in the same way.

If, however, we take the story as a product of Hebrew religious myth from the point of view of a religious storyteller, then Ra’s (with his League of Shadows) correlates to a religious leader (and institution) who produces god to further his own goals. And, in that case the character of god would actually be completely lacking in the film—just as he is lacking in observable existence. All we have of god, then, in the film, are men who use the god concept (specifically the fear of it injected into others) to empower their own actions. So, we have a choice to go with an interpretation that fails to correlate with the Sodom story’s main character (god to man)—or one that successfully correlates (man-made symbol to man-made symbol), but only from an atheistic perspective.

Bruce Wayne: Correlates to Abraham—loyal follower of Ra’s who desires to support the will of Ra’s, until he begins to question the justice and benevolence of Ra’s’ actions and goals. In fact, even the famous Biblical bargaining scene is repeated in the film, as Bruce tries to reason with Ra’s that the city should be spared for the sake of the righteous. The culmination of the exchange is Bruce’s statement to Ra’s that, “Gotham isn’t beyond saving. Give me more time. There are good people here.” It is important to note here as well that Ra’s was ultimately responsible for Thomas Wayne’s death, after which he hand selected Bruce in a “lost” state and mentored him—becoming the father that was lost. Just as Yahweh is a surrogate father-god to Abraham.

Like Abraham, Bruce is not only interested in the welfare of the generic “righteous people,” but also those close to him (Lot and his family). The most celebrated righteous man in Gotham is no longer living. Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father, appears to be in a blood line of righteous men. His virtues in helping people in the city of Gotham are repeated throughout the film, and even Thomas’ own ancestors are incorporated as good men. Alfred informs Bruce that his “great-great-gra
ndfather was involved in the Underground Railroad, secretly transporting freed slaves to the North.” The Wayne family is a righteous family from a humanitarian perspective.

Humanitarian goals, however, appear to conflict with the vengeance of Ra’s. In talking about his plans to destroy Gotham, he admits to Bruce, “Over the ages our weapons have grown more sophisticated. With Gotham we tried a new one. Economics. But we underestimated certain of Gotham’s citizens—such as your parents. Gunned down by one of the very people they were trying to help. Create enough hunger and everyone becomes a criminal. Their deaths galvanized the city into saving itself, and Gotham has limped on ever since. We are back to finish the job. And this time no misguided idealists will get in the way.”

Alfred and Rachael: Correlate to Lot and his family—those for whom Bruce cares. In general the generic Righteous People are also represented, and we even have an appeal to the idea of considering children among the victims—something sorely lacking in most Biblical destruction myths. There is a repeating character of a small boy who puts in a few cameos throughout the film.

There are other characters that bring hard realism into the film, which is one of the superior features of this film over the past Batman films. Gordon represents the struggle of man within corrupt social infrastructure—similar to Rachael’s character in many ways. His Quixote-style struggle to benefit society while constrained within the layers of a thoroughly corrupt social system is a flagrant anti-vigilante statement. We feel his frustration to the point of wondering at times why he even bothers to continue in his role as an officer of the law. But he still holds out hope—dwindling as it may be—that if a good system isn’t working, right action doesn’t include blowing up a building or killing people. He works as far as he is able, within the system, to correct what is broken and make it function successfully again. But he, alone, or at least disenfranchised from others of the same mind, can have little to no impact. (That is my one plug for the OUT movement.) This is quite contrary to Ra’s’ philosophy, “If someone stands in the way of true justice…you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart.”

Fox: Science and technology are represented as being on the side of reason and humanism. Fox is the sci-tech guru, and the film’s icon of calm reason. His character, immersed in science and reason, actually produces the antidote to “fear”—Ra’s’ weapon of choice, produced in mass quantities by his brilliant, but diabolical subordinate, Crane. If Fox is the epitome of calm reason, his opposite, Crane, is no less the epitome of calm insanity.

Crane: Supplies mass fear, in the form of a neurotoxin derived from a blue flower, that shrouds and empowers Ra’s. And like any faithful adherent to a religious leader or institution, he operates in his own self-interest—Ra’s’ promise of reward. Ra’s explains to Bruce, “He thought our plan was to hold the city to ransom.” Also, during a discussion with Falcone, Crane makes a statement that is reminiscent of the religious adherent proselytizing or the Old Testament prophet, “I am more than aware that you are not intimidated by me, Mr. Falcone. But you know who I’m working for, and when he gets here…”

It is clearly then a struggle between a group of a humanist mindset and a group using fear and deception (of a false supernature) in order to gain power and wreak indiscriminate vengeance upon a population Ra’s has judged unfit to go on living.

The quotes supporting the use of supernature and fear as weapons against the masses are so thick it’s hard to cull them. But, below, I supply a batch as examples.

On Supernature and Deception (being more than a man in the minds of others):
Ra’s/Ducard: Theatricality and deception are powerful agents. You must become more than just a man in the mind of your opponent.

Ironically, this sentiment is echoed later by Bruce himself as he works out his Batman persona, “Theatricality and deception…are powerful weapons, Alfred.”

Ra’s/Ducard: You know how to disappear. We can teach you to become truly invisible…The ninja understands that invisibility is a matter of patience and agility.

Ra’s/Ducard: …if you make yourself more than just a man—if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely…Legend…

Bruce: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy. I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, destroyed. But as a symbol—as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting…Something elemental, something terrifying.

Finally, in a conversation between Ra’s and Bruce, humanism and reason stand up to supernatural claims to call them out for what they are:

Ra’s/Ducard: But is Ra’s al Ghul immortal? Are his methods supernatural?

Bruce: Or cheap parlor tricks to conceal your true identity, Ra’s?

Not to beat a dead horse, but in claiming the film puts forward a statement about religion, showing the repeated messages to this effect is necessary. In Batman Begins, it is not necessary to search with a fine-toothed comb for clues. It hammers us over the head with blatant and repeated messages throughout. Using the Sodom theme as our guide to the characters, Bruce is little more than a mouthpiece, stating outright that god is a cheap parlor trick—a mask—to conceal the real power of religious authority.

It’s no coincidence that masks play such an overwhelming role in this film. Ra’s hides behind a supernatural façade, but he is none other than Ducard. Crane plays the Scarecrow. And in a confusing string of masks, Bruce hides behind Batman, who hides behind Bruce. The “Bruce” we see dating models and buying expensive things is a front for Batman who is a front for the “real” Bruce. As Rachael points out near the end (talking about Bruce’s face), “This is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear.” This is interesting because of all the “masks”—Batman appears to be the only one that was “real.”

But clearly Ra’s, the deception of the supernatural “more than a man” mask (god), is used as a front to provide the League of Shadows (religious institutions) with unquestioned power. Unquestioned in the sense that so long as everyone is paid off (with Heaven) or scared (of Hell or social condemnation), nobody dares to question what’s in Falcone’s crates—to use another metaphor from the movie we’ll get to in a bit.

When Bruce stands up to Ra’s, we see humanism and reason confronting superstition, vengeance and fear in a struggle for the population, “I’ll be standing where I belong. Between you and the people of Gotham.”

In another response by Bruce, we hear him say, “This is just the beginning. If they hit the whole city [with Crane’s fear-inducing neurotoxin], there’s nothing to stop Gotham tearing itself apart.” In other words, if everyone is infected with fear, there will be no reasonable perspective left to restore order.

On Fear:
Ra’s/Ducard: …men fear most what they cannot see. You have to become a terrible thought. A wraith. You have to become an idea!

Ra’s/Ducard: Feel terror cloud your senses. Feel its power to distort—to control. And know that this power can be yours.

Ra’s/Ducard: To manipulate the fears in others…you must first master your own.

Rachel gives a potent speech on the paralyzing effect of fear: “As long as he [Falcone] keeps the bad people rich and the good people scared, no one will touch him. Good people like your [Bruce’s] parents, who’ll stand against injustice, they’re gone. What chance does Gotham have when the good people do nothing?”

Falcone sums up his take on fear with this, “…you always fear what you don’t understand.”

Crane illustrates how, rather than paralyzing, fear can also motivate dangerous reactions, “Patients suffering delusional episodes often focus their paranoia—on an external tormentor…” Who could forget the images of 9-11? How long have gays been persecuted in our own society? What was it like a few hundred years ago to be an apostate or a heretic? Irrational and paranoid fear is nearly all that is needed to motivate one group to unfairly, and with real animosity, unleash upon another. As Thomas Wayne explained to Bruce about the bats, “You know why they attacked you, don’t you? They were afraid of you.” He also, reasonably notes that those who would use fear against others must understand fear themselves—that is, be subject to the effects of fear, “All creatures feel fear…especially the scary ones.”

On Compassion:
When Ra’s begins his attack on Gotham, he nonchalantly informs Bruce, “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to destroy.”

Ra’s take on compassion clashes noticeably with all of the characters of Reason in the film. Finch, Rachael’s boss, small part that he plays, even understands that addressing wrongdoing should not include disregard for the well being of those who are not to blame. When the investigation threatens to put Rachael in harm’s way, Finch makes it clear, “…as much as I care about getting Falcone, I care more about you.”

In a telling exchange between Ra’s and Bruce, we see the conflict between vengeance and compassion hightlighted:

Ra’s/Ducard: Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.

Bruce: That’s why it’s so important. It separates us from them.

On Justice vs. Vengeance:
No character in the film disputes the corruption levels of Gotham. The question is only one of how to address the problem in the most appropriate way—through blind vengeance or through reasoned justice combined with compassion? Although this is clearly addressed several times in the dialogue, perhaps the clearest expression is between Bruce and Rachael:

Rachel: You’re not talking about justice. You’re talking about revenge.

Bruce: Sometimes, they’re the same.

Rachel: No, they’re never the same. Justice is about harmony. Revenge is about you making yourself feel better. It’s why we have an impartial system.

Later, Bruce recognizes Rachael’s point, “I was a coward with a gun, and justice is about more than revenge.”

Religious Language and Symbolism:
Other religious language in the film is not to be overlooked, quotes like these pepper the exchanges:

Ra’s/Ducard: When I found you in that jail, you were lost. But I believed in you. I took away your fear, and I showed you a path. You were my greatest student. It should be you standing by my side, saving the world.

Ra’s, posing as Ducard: Ra’s al Ghul rescued us from the darkest corners of our own hearts.

In contrast to the religious ideology of salvation via an external source, Thomas Wayne’s statement, often repeated in the script, is supportive of self-reliance and stands in stark contrast, “why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Thomas’ other mantra is this: “Don’t be afraid.”

Alfred also asserts self-reliance and the idea that we make our own destinies: “I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do with your past, sir. Just know that there are those of us who care about what you do with your future.”

Rachael has something to add to the discussion on self-reliance as well, “it’s not who you are underneath…it’s what you do that defines you.”

Even the murderer Joe Chill chimes in with a statement about responsibility for one’s actions, “Sure, I was desperate, like a lot of people back then…but that don’t change what I did.”

Other lines filtered through religion-colored lenses include:

Bruce: You’re not the devil. You’re practice.

Or more on lost states and salvation:

Ra’s/Ducard: …whatever your original intentions…you have become truly lost.

Bruce: And what path can Ra’s al Ghul offer?

Ra’s/Ducard: The path of a man who shares his hatred of evil…and wishes to serve true justice.

There are even a few lines that may strike chords with aficionados of Bible trivia:

When Batman is interrogating Flass, Flass shouts out, “I don’t know! I swear to god!” Batman replies, “Swear to ME!” If this sounds familiar, it should. Hebrews 6:13 states that “When God made his promise to Abraham, since there was no one greater for him to swear by, he swore by himself.” In light of this passage in Hebrews, asking Flass to swear to Batman, rather than to god, produces a usurpation of the god symbol. With Bruce’s prior statements about creating the Batman symbol, which will follow Ra’s lead of making him “more than a man,” we see him, as a symbol of humanistic compassion and reason, raised to a supreme and unchallenged status—even above god. The dialogue now goes beyond Ra’s as a metaphor for god, to the use of the actual symbol god.

Another cameo religious line comes in toward the end when Bruce tells Ra’s, “let these people go.” This is nearly verbatim of a very famous religious quote from Moses (speaking on behalf of Yahweh) to Pharoah—another situation where an oppressed population required emancipation, and here again, Batman speaks words of his own that are, in Biblical terms, words from a god. Extremely interesting here, too, one minor change in the line is the switch from “my” (showing ownership) to “these” (showing autonomy). Batman demands their release on humanistic authority, respecting the human autonomy of those in danger. His power and will to help them requires no submission or reciprocation on their part. This is a slight, but highly significant difference in the two statements—as Yahweh’s assistance is always provided at a cost.

Perhaps the most clear contrast is a statement that reflects Jesus’ divine identity in the New Testament that he is “The Word,” and, subsequently, the Christian’s claim that they are “spreading The Word.” Ducard explains exactly what “spreading The Word” is really about: “Time to spread the word. And the word is—panic.”

Another interesting use of religious symbolism is found in the “rare, blue flower.” Bruce is told to climb a mountain—but he must carry a “rare, blue flower” with him. Ra’s puts it thus, “If you can carry it to the top of the mountain—you may find what you were looking for in the first place.” A friend who actually mountain climbs pointed out that this was his favorite scene. He went on to explain that the use of the words “if you can” should be a red flag. Climbing the mountain, he pointed out, is the hardship. Carrying a flower with you represents no challenge. So why carry the flower? Simply to show loyalty and obedience to Ra’s’ will. A viewer wrote in to point out that this flower represents “faith,” and that appears to be dead-on. Meanwhile, it is no surprise later in the film to find that this flower, faith, is used to produce a neurotoxin that imparts fear to the entire population when spread by Ra’s (the religious leader) and Crane (his adherent).

Further religious symbolism strikes when we consider that fear is used more than once to rebuff inquiry. As Falcone so clearly explains, “Ignorance is bliss, my friend. Don’t burden yourself with the secrets of scary people.” The writers illustrate his point when they have Finch try to investigate the contents of Falcone’s shipments at the docks. Finch is told by the guards, “Listen, counselor, we don’t wanna know what’s in Mr. Falcone’s crate.” Do not question. Do have faith. Use fear where bribes fail. If push co
mes to shove, get violent. Finch does, in fact, end up dead for his inquiry.

What defense is there against the effects of fear? Oddly enough, Crane hands us the key, “only the mind can grant you power.”

Ra’s uses Crane to make the blue flower of faith convert to fear, where it is described, in the film, as an honest to goodness mind poison. When Rachael is injected with it, Crane says, “the mind can only take so much.” And Bruce points out later that “she needs the antidote before the damage is permanent.” Could the effects of fear and faith poison the mind so as never to be undone? I certainly hope that’s not the case.

And who should produce the antidote to this mind poisoning fear brought on by faith, but Fox, the icon of reason and science—real inquiry and information. Later, Batman instructs that the antidote (provided by reason) must be administered to the entire population.

Even to the last, the film is a promotion of a humanist perspective. Gordon says to Batman that he never said “thank you.” And Batman replies, “you’ll never have to.”

Reason, humanity and justice serve humanity and require no homage—no money, no bloodletting of animals or of humans, no pledge of loyalty, not even gratitude. They demand no fear. They fear no inquiry. They provide equal support to everyone to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their lives, and they demand nothing in return for what they offer and provide. Perhaps with more works like Batman Begins on the market, more people will begin to consider taking advantage of those offerings?

Bridging the Gap

This week, when I stopped at the library, I checked out Psychology and Religion by C. G. Jung. It is a short volume based on 1937 Terry Lectures presented at Yale.

I am nearly at the end of the book, and I am compelled to write about my impressions. It has provided me one of the most profound religious epiphanies, since the day I recognized god was a metaphor.

Jung has offered me a new perspective on an old mystery. While I can see in my past observations on religion that I have touched on similar ideas, I believe that my own observations only rippled across the surface, while Jung has gone down to fathoms I never imagined.

If I had to sum up Psychology and Religion, I would say that it is a message of bridging the gap between the conscious and the unconscious mind. Jung’s observations and speculations in this text, to a large degree, have since been fleshed out in neuroscientific research in a way that left me feeling that Jung’s intuitions were nearly prophetic.

At a time when Jung had to honestly write, “the unconscious mind [was] a mere assumption for the sake of convenience,” he was still comfortable assuming its existence.

Jung was unable to understand “who” was producing dreams, if not an unconscious aspect of human psyche. Dreams flow from our heads in unconscious states, with stories and images that are sometimes incredibly foreign to our conscious life. Physics is defied. We are surprised by plot changes. Dreams appear to be consciously observed content from something in our heads that is not consciously controlled or initiated. Something that is “me”—but that cannot be “me,” if “I” am conscious ego.

Jung found it beneficial to differentiate the conscious “me” (ego) from the subconscious entity for the purposes not only of examination, but also in working with his patients on a practical level. He used the term “self” to described the bundled package of all mind—conscious or otherwise. He used “I,” and variants of “I,” to represent ego. The subconscious aspects, then, are not what I consider to be “me,” but are still part of my “self,” according to Jung.

He admitted openly he had no idea what the subconscious was, exactly why it existed, or how it worked. “In reality I am totally unconscious of—in other words, I do not know at all—where [a voice in a dream] originates. I am not only incapable of producing the phenomena at will but I am also unable to anticipate the mental contents of [the voice]. Under such conditions it would be presumptuous to call the factor which produces the voice my mind…the fact that you perceive the voice in your dream proves nothing at all, for you can also hear the noises in the street, which you would not explain as your own.

“There is only one condition under which you might legitimately call the voice your own, namely, when you assume your conscious personality to be a part of a whole or to be a smaller circle contained in a bigger one.”

Jung’s assumption then was “human personality consists of two things: first, of consciousness and whatever this covers, and second, of an indefinitely large hinterland of unconscious psyche.” The problem for Jung was that he had no method to define the second aspect—or even to support its existence beyond his interpretations of his indirect observations. In Jung’s mind, there were only two choices: Dreams come from some unconscious aspect of our own minds, or they are put into our heads from an external source (such as the car noise). Since the human brain is a known mechanism for producing conscious thoughts and images in our heads, Jung saw no reason to look further for a source of the unconscious messages. To Jung, it was a safe assumption that whether we were aware of it or not, part of our self seemed capable of generating mental function that was, in an abstract way, detectible to our conscious minds.

Jung also expresses a keen awareness of what was known and what was conjecture. “If asked I shall surely stand by my convictions which do not go further than what I consider to be my actual knowledge. I am convinced of what I know. Everything else is hypothesis and beyond that I can leave a lot of things to the Unknown. They do not bother me. But they would begin to bother me, I am sure, if I felt that I ought to know something about them.” The context of this quote is in a discussion about religion, and specifically this passage follows directly a note dealing with religiously minded patients.

How familiar is this? How often do online apologists express, “If god didn’t make the world—then how did it get here? You don’t know!” To grasp tightly to a myth, no matter how true or untrue, how verified or unverified—is better than not knowing to these individuals. Religion presses us, then, to be uncomfortable with not knowing—uncomfortable to the point of embracing any explanation, no matter how fantastic.

If a patient had deep religious beliefs, Jung indicated he would not challenge them. He would work as a professional psychologist within the world constructed by the patient’s mind. In fact, he expresses that it is futile to attempt to do otherwise. “As long as such a defense works I shall not break it down, since I know that there must be powerful reasons why the patient has to think in such a narrow circle.”

I have admired the work inspired by Jung for some time. But I have also heard on many occasions that he was involved in a lot of woo. In reading this book, I find myself pleasantly surprised, then, by passages like this, “It would be a regrettable mistake if anybody should understand my observations to be a kind of proof of the existence of God. They prove only the existence of an archetypal image of the Deity, which to my mind is the most we can assert psychologically about God.” In other words, as far as Jung can tell, god exists as an idea.

Jung spends a considerable amount of real estate in the book to cover symbolic aspects of the number four in religious contexts. This ties into a particular case study he uses to illustrate many of his points. At first, I was completely dubious of this discussion. His client dreams of religious imagery that ties into the number four quite often. Jung provides examples of how the number four is used in the religion of the patient, who was raised Catholic, but who would have no more knowledge of ancient church writings than any layperson. Why would some Christian script from a millennia ago, talking about four, be significant? But, after reading further, I began to recognize that Jung is only looking to see if symbols, similar to those his patient is producing, subconsciously in a religious context, have been recorded by others with a similar religious context.

This ties into Jung’s idea of a Collective Unconscious, also known as the Objective Psyche. Jung differentiated between a personal unconscious and a collective unconscious. There are some experiences that impact us that are directly connected to the greater human experience. There are other experiences that impact us that are unique to us as individuals. When it comes to people, part of us is uniquely individual, and part of us is common to all humans. This is as true of human beings physically as it is mentally. Collective unconscious is that part of the unconscious mind that results from simply being a human animal, and not from individual, subjective experience or interpretation. There have been misguided attempts to promote this idea as some sort of “woo.” But it does not, for example, embody the idea that I can “remember” experiences of my great-great-grandmother. It means only that certain psychological aspects of my being are the result of my inescapable human aspects. And I necessarily share those aspects with other humans.

This is why Jung felt a need to examine antiquity to see if other Catholics shared the religious symbo
lism his patient’s subconscious mind was repeatedly thrusting into his dreams. Because Catholics share the same symbolic history in the context of similar religious upbringing, perhaps deciphering these symbols in the context of the patient’s familiar religion would help to flesh out whatever the subconscious was trying to relate to the conscious mind in the patient’s dreams.

Like Freud, Jung agreed that repression results in neurotic manifestations in the patient’s conscious existence. But he also felt that the unconscious/conscious divide exists for a reason. He held to a very evolutionary standpoint that because the divide exists, it must serve a purpose. And if there is benefit to evolving with an unconscious mind, then it would be “normal for a man to resist…the unconscious with all those tendencies and contents hitherto excluded from conscious life. They were excluded for a number of real and apparent reasons. Some are suppressed and some are repressed.” In other words, if the unconscious mind serves us, it makes sense that we would have an intuitive aversion to bringing it to our conscious awareness.

To Jung, our unconscious impulses, if left unchecked by the conscious ego, yield unhappy results. He uses mob mentality as an example of unsuppressed impulsive action and why it can be dangerous. All of us, he points out, to some degree suppress unconscious impulses that arise. This ties in with neuroscience (especially Crick and Koch), which has since illustrated that at least one function of conscious mind is to evaluate an act upon (or refuse to act upon) unconscious impulses that arise in a very mysterious fashion.

Suppression, Jung defines as a healthy, conscious inhibitor—a choice to not express an impulse. Repression, on the other hand is an unconscious or semi-conscious inhibition of an impulse. Jung expressed that from what he could tell, the conscious mind was a smaller and subordinate part of the greater mind, which again aligns with modern neuroscience. The unconscious mind initiates action, the conscious mind evaluates action. It is the gateway, the checkpoint, where impulses are either allowed to manifest or are suppressed. To Jung, a repressed impulse cannot be understood on a conscious level, because it is not impeded on any fully conscious level.

Phobia was one example that came to my own mind immediately. I have seen people both paralyzed with fear and white knuckled with fear of the most mundane situations and objects. When I’ve asked what exactly they are afraid of, the responses I get are not rational. I’m sure they honestly express their immediate feelings; but they do not adequately explain the reaction I am witnessing. The person, himself or herself, does not consciously understand why they have been overtaken with ridiculous levels of fear due only to their proximity to an extremely mundane situation or object. And yet, their unconscious mind is generating in their conscious mind overwhelming fear. Because it is not understood, it becomes difficult for the individual to rationalize the situation. So, there is no means to control the reaction. Their sense, literally, breaks down, and they become a mere vessel of full-bore fear in the face of what most of us consider to be nothing at all.

So, it does make sense that the less we understand our subjugation of our unconscious impulses, the worse their impact—the rebellion of the subconscious impulse, if I can personify it—will be to our conscious experience.

In Jung’s opinion, the Catholic religion, despite it’s reputation with Hell, was good at alleviating unconscious tension. The church was a supreme authority between man and god—which symbolizes the unconscious mind. As a Catholic, I could alleviate my plagued conscience at any time, merely by going to my local church and engaging in the ritual of confession. The church, as the ultimate authority on all things spiritual, reliably assured me that whatever I had done, I was now forgiven and all was absolved. With the rise of Protestantism, Jung was concerned that removing that authority would leave people with a doubt regarding their absolution—and a subsequent rise in neurotic manifestations. As a Protestant, there is no symbol (no priest) to tell me that I have been cured of my sin. Jung points out that with the fall of the church authority, we should expect that Protestants would be left foundering on their own—accounting for the myriad Protestant denominations. Since god is a symbol, a metaphor, of the human mind, spawned from the collective unconscious, filtered through the personal unconscious and then submitted to the conscious mind for interpretation, how could humans produce an unfractured model, without a strong central authority, such as the Catholic Church had provided from potentially as far back as the birth of the Christian religion?

Christianity, itself, Jung asserted, had broken out of a traditional religious symbolism that relied heavily on the number four. Whether there is any merit to his evaluation of the trinity as an incomplete symbol for what should be a four-part god, I cannot say. But his conclusions, whether his methods were valid in this regard or not, were astonishingly on target.

After leaving the church, I recall reading Eastern religious philosophy where the concept of god as being representative of a complete whole contrasted sharply with my Christian upbringing. In the East, there is a concept of a unity, a one complete symbol that encompasses everything. “All things are one thing” would be perhaps a good way to put it. In some Asian languages, there is the idea of “the Universe of 10,000 things,” but also the universe as a single, whole, complete unit. In Christianity, we see a divide of opposing natures. Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil, Spirit and Flesh, Male and Female. According to the Eastern views, this is unnecessarily divisive and not generally a healthy perspective. For a thing to be complete, it must encompass Heaven AND Earth, Good AND Evil, Spirit AND Flesh, Male AND Female.

In Christianity, god is the god of good. And evil is the domain outside of god’s context. Likewise, god appears to lack a feminine presence. Christianity is replete with concepts of an incomplete, and according to Jung, therefore inadequate, god symbol. Jung believed this was significant because god is a symbol meant to represent the human being’s concept of self. And clearly there are some key elements of self expunged from the Christian god symbol. If my conscious model violates my unconscious model, then I am, in effect, denying aspects of my self in a repressive, rather than suppressive way. And, Jung observed, this will create consciously manifesting problems for individuals.

The church, according to Jung’s model, has made open attempts to plug the holes in the incompleteness of their god symbol. “The Devil” has been incorporated as the embodiment of that which is not accounted for by the Christian god—those aspects of the self that are negatively interpreted by the religion. And Mary was at once held up to produce a symbol to embody the feminine aspect. Likewise, the Holy Spirit has been related to a feminine presence in the Gnostic texts. What is missing in the model should be assumed to be accounted for somewhere in the context of the greater set of symbols, according to Jung. And, whether via accuracy or accident, the model works.

According to Jung, it is dangerous for a person to reject a natural part of his or her own being. It is one thing to apply appropriate suppression of inappropriate impulses. But to foster self-loathing of those impulses is to encourage unhealthy repression and denial. Where religion encourages this, it necessarily causes harm to the self, or even the “soul” as Jung also referred to it (due to the religious context of this work).

The unconscious impulses that arise consciously in all of us contain some unflattering data about ourselves on occasion. The more comfortable with
and aware of this we are, the better for our mental health. The more we torture ourselves for being what and who were are, the worse off we become. “Freud has discovered repression as one of the main mechanisms in the making of neurosis…Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but never causes a neurosis of one of the usual patterns.” Jung explains why. “If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is steadily subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meaning attempts.” Further in talking about the unconscious negatively held personality aspects (“the shadow”), Jung says, “…if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”

In other words, only by understanding and accepting the things I dislike about myself, can I hope to incorporate them into my life in an adequately controlled fashion.

Because the subconscious mind relates to the conscious mind in a highly symbolic and indirect fashion (mysteriously generated impulses we may or may not understand and surreal dreams that speak to us in our sleep), it is natural for people to be mystified, fearful and in awe. God as a symbol for the mental self, then, makes perfect sense. Ideas come to us, as if from some external source. “We,” the ego, did not generate them—and yet, there they are—as if from some other personage. In fact, Jung actually suggests that at times it might be useful to model the subconscious as a separate personality, in order to examine it as separate from the ego. Is it any wonder so many people would become confused and project it into their conscious reality as a separate personality?

Perhaps the most interesting assessment Jung offers is the idea of religion as a purified form of the unconscious symbols of the self, where myriad people over great spans of time have added to the menagerie of symbols to produce a set of current symbols that relate to the individual’s unconscious model of self in a far more powerful way than any one human’s subconscious imagery ever could. In other words, it makes sense that religion will “speak to us” and ring true, the more it accurately models the self. Think about humanity on the whole, and consider the impact this system of symbols will have on the psyche of the average Joe on the street. It has become so convincing an expression of “truth” to such a great number of average citizens, purely because it has grown into such a perfect set of symbols that model the self. It confuses many into accepting that it represents a reality that can be, or even should be, consciously understood using the rules of conscious logic. (And anyone who has dialogued with a fundamentalist Christian apologist will understand how badly that endeavor must fail.)

Bridging the gap, attempting to allow the conscious and unconscious mind to meet halfway and come to some amicable understanding, is an understandable endeavor. Meditation, employed in many cultures, is an attempt to bring the conscious mind “down” to subconscious levels. Lucid Dreaming attempts the same, as, historically, has mystic and religious hallucinogenic drug use. Fasting, going without sleep, stressing the body in order to bring the unconscious impulses to light during a conscious context, is familiar to many cultures—the religious experience or the mystic vision. Modern religion, like art, is an attempt to bring the subconscious to the realm of the conscious.

The problem is that the conscious mind has not completely cracked the code of subconscious language. We recognize many of the symbols, but we can’t seem to agree on exactly what they mean or represent. They appear to be, to some degree, open to subjective interpretation. Certainly that is the nature of symbols in general. But where we have an utterly amorphous symbol, like “god”—totally without a referent in reality—that represents a practically unknown mechanism, like the subconscious mind—how can we hope to apply any objective interpretation? All interpretations would spawn from the individual’s understanding of his or her own subconscious impulses—some of which would be collective, others of which must be personal. Endowed with broad appeal and left to subjective interpretation—it has what it takes to endure for as long as the subconscious mind remains shrouded in mystery. If Jung’s interpretations and predictions apply, I would wager that if the human unconscious is ever fully understood and explained, the Christian god will go the way of the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods.

As Jung declares, “Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man.”

But, what can we do if we are in the middle of a larger culture that subscribes to a religious model that fails to adequately and fully represent the “self” and that is accepted as literal truth rather than understood as symbol? Speaking of addressing any social dilemma, Jung points out “collectives are mere accumulations of individuals, their problems are also accumulations of individual problems…they are only solved by a general change of attitude. And the change does not begin with propaganda and mass meetings, or with violence. It begins with a change in individuals. It will continue as a transformation of their personal likes and dislikes, of their outlook on life and of their values, and only the accumulation of such individual changes will produce a collective solution.” The best way I know to accomplish this is to let people know you are an atheist. It’s hard to be prejudiced against atheists when your friend, son, wife, mother, coworker, is an atheist, and someone you know and like. As far as I know this is the best way to affect individual assessments.

I still have a few more pages yet to read. But I’ll wrap up for now with the quote that spawned this article. The context is in relating the experience of a patient finding resolution to a neurotic situation. Jung describes this as a “religious experience” or “conversion”—but means only positively life-altering, not “religious” in the sense of supernatural beliefs:

“If you sum up what people tell you about their experience, you can formulate it about in this way: They came to themselves, they could accept themselves, they were able to become reconciled to themselves and by this they were also reconciled to adverse circumstances and events. This is much like what was formerly expressed by saying: He has made his peace with God, he has sacrificed his own will, he has submitted himself to the will of God.”

If god is the modern symbol of the whole of man—the self, in the language of the subconscious—making peace with god and subjecting oneself to god’s will translates directly into making peace with oneself and coming to regard oneself as whole by accepting all aspects of one’s personality without self-loathing, repression, or denial.

At this point, I’m seriously considering rereading the New Testament replacing “god” with “self” to see what sorts of new meanings the text takes on. Just in Jung’s small example of the use of “god’s will,” I see entirely new, and even useful insight.

Addendum: Of course, as I wrapped the final pages, I found a provocative quote: “The philosophy of the Upanishads corresponds to a psychology that long ago recognized the relativity of the gods. This is not to be confounded with such a stupid error as atheism.” I reminded myself this was written in the 1930s, and that I have to consider the political climate and the meani
ng of “atheist” at the time Jung was presenting. In reading further, I was somewhat confounded because it is obvious to me that, judging solely from the context of this book, Jung is as much an atheist as any atheist I’ve ever met. He no more puts forward a literal god being than I would. And his statement appears to be aimed at a despiritualization that he fears will have negative effects on society. That while some individuals can do well without religious imagery, many will not stand as well on their own merits. I have no idea whether or not that prediction would bear up.

I must recognize, however, that in Jung’s view, when a patient is faced with a choice of the “devil and the deep sea,” (his religion or his neurosis), “the devil is at least somewhat heroic, but the sea is spiritual death. The well-meaning rationalist will point out that…I replace an honest neurosis by the cheat of a religious belief…I must point out that there is no question of belief, but of experience…Is there, as a matter of fact, any better truth about ultimate things than the one that helps you to live?…The thing that cures the neurosis must be as convincing as the neurosis…It must be a very real illusion…But what is the difference between a real illusion and a healing religious experience? It is merely a difference in words.”

Whatever brand of atheism Jung considered as “stupid error,” he is clearly espousing what today, to any literalist or fundamentalist Christian, would be clear, inarguably atheistic views.

What’s the Difference?

When I first recognized I was an atheist, I hadn’t read any atheist literature. I studied and came to my own conclusions about god after being brought up as a fundamentalist (and for many years accepting the Bible as the inerrant word of god). After a few years as an atheist, visiting atheist forums and debating and dialoging with atheists and theists alike, I stumbled upon ACA in my community. I had already begun drawing Atheist Eve–a character who reflected my own perspective of what I saw as problems in my own past “logic” and who also voiced my assessment of current Christian doctrines and trends.

I was so ignorant of the atheist community and what it offered that I recall a discussion on the ACA list where someone quoted Richard Dawkins. I replied, “Who is Richard Dawkins? And why should I care what he says?” Interestingly, while I’m not proud of my ignorance, I am happy with my response. Here’s why:

As a Christian, I was always reading the Bible, attending Bible studies and reading commentaries that reinforced my fundamentalist beliefs about doctrine and interpretation. I wanted to be thoroughly informed about what I “believed” (although I have a lot of trouble calling something I have to learn and constantly reinforce _my_ “belief”).

With atheism, it didn’t work that way. I observed and studied all I could about the nature of existence around me, and concluded that god appeared to be a metaphor.

While I can’t claim that no one might read Dawkins and change their mind with regard to religious beliefs, I can claim that I never was “swayed” by Satan in the form of any atheist writer. No silky smooth sophistry confused me into atheism. No angry incident with my church or a preacher made me hate god. No rebellion against the Christian lifestyle or rules and regulations made Christianity impossible for me. No desire to sin with abandon drove my motives. (In fact, later, when I began to adopt a more Buddhist perspective, I was far more morally restricted than I ever had been as a Christian. Personal sacrifice has never been an impediment for me. I’m simply not a highly materialistic person). The truth is, believe it or don’t, I just put my mind to the task of considering the question and studied relevant data as much as I could, and I determined god is a metaphor.

What made me happy about my own ignorance, though, is that there is something to be said for being able to respond to apologetic criticisms that I’m being blindly led astray by the intellectual prowess of such as Dawkins, by pointing out that it can hardly be a valid criticism while it is aimed at someone who has never read any atheist author’s views on religion, and who doesn’t know who Dawkins is. So, even after discovering Dawkins, I never read more than one article. I didn’t want to “learn” arguments from him. I didn’t want to be accused of adopting the beliefs of others and simply labeling them as “my own,” in the same way I had done in my religious years. There is no atheist leader. There is nothing in atheism to follow. And if I disagree with Dawkins, it’s OK to say, “So what if Dawkins says it? I don’t agree.”

When is the last time a fundamentalist posted, “So what if the Bible says it? I don’t agree.”

That’s the difference. And it’s a biggie. And so, if there could ever be a positive result to ignorance, hopefully it was illustrated in my reply on the atheist list those years ago.

But Dawkins is a man, and the Bible, well, that’s god, isn’t it? That’s why you won’t hear that from a fundamentalist. That’s what I would have said as a fundamentalist in response to my own point above. After taking a course of Josh McDowell’s materials with my preacher at about 15 years old, I would have insisted it was inarguable. The Bible was the inerrant word of god. My church said it. My family said it. My school never disputed it. My community held to it. Everyone knew the Bible was the word of god. Everyone knew that if there was a god, then Christianity was the option. And none of us ever bothered to confirm any of our assumptions.

Now, after many years of avoiding reading books about atheists and atheism, I feel I’ve proven my point—mainly to myself, but perhaps to some others—that atheism is my fully informed choice and “my” belief based on “my” conclusions. I have not accepted the claim of atheism from someone else. I’ve given theists their opportunity. I’ve looked at the world and universe around me, and after crunching the data, god is a metaphor.

In celebrating my release from the feeling of obligation that I need to respond to those who would accuse me of succumbing to Satanic atheist dogma that presumably corrupted my brain, I now have begun reading atheist literature. I read some Bertrand Russell, some George Smith, some Dawkins, and now I’m reading Ehrman. I enjoy some of it. I enjoy some of it somewhat less. I find some of it hard to read. I find some of it easy to read. I agree with some of it. I disagree with some of it. But I am able to evaluate all of it and make up my own mind whether or not I deem it as valid based on what I know of the world around me and how it operates.

The Erhman book I’m reading currently reminded me very much of my own experiences with religion in my past. And I decided to write some notes about that to someone, and I’m going to share a portion of that correspondence (somewhat paraphrased) here for anyone who likes that sort of thing:

“…At 15, I still would not commit to Christianity, because I was too unsure if there was a god or not. Finally, a preacher invited me to attend a series based on the materials of Josh McDowell, who puts forward the inerrancy of scripture via historical ‘evidence.’

“I was so swayed by McDowell (back then there was no Internet, and local libraries in small towns weren’t overflowing with controversial books that questioned mainstream ideas). It wasn’t until college that I even met anyone who questioned whether or not the foundation of my beliefs (the Bible–and even the existence of god) was something I should probably think more about. [Because truth was important to me, I took their advice.]

“Outside of my normal course load and my part-time job, I made time to spend in the evenings at the university library, looking up religious history–especially regarding the production of the Bible. What I finally determined (much to my dismay) was that the criticisms of my fellow students (many of whom were taking history themselves) were well-founded. In the end, as a layman, sitting many nights at a table with my books all spread out, I was able to piece together the information–that is today put forward in the book ‘Misquoting Jesus’–from many different sources–some religious, some secular (none, however, which were atheistic or anti-religious). Once I recognized that the history of the Bible–even as presented by honest, god-fearing Christians promoting Christian doctrine–indicated a group of texts one should take with a heaping pile of grains of salt–my mind was finally freed to pursue honest truth.

“Thanks to books like Erhman’s and the Internet, there is today a place for fundamentalist youth (or even the aged) to go and find this information in a simpler fashion…for a layman, this information isn’t really old hat, nor is it easy to necessarily even find and put together. But it is becoming more common and available, and that’s because of the work of people like Erhman. At the time I was a teen, Josh McDowell’s claims could stand completely unchallenged by schools, churches, and communities in America. There was no independent, unbiased source to go to, to see if what McDowell claimed was verifiable. Erhman is part of a structure that is slowly growing and finally making sure that all sides of the fundamentalist story are available to the public.

“Freedom of choice surely needs to be respected, but what is
the difference between an uninformed choice and no choice at all? By keeping people ignorant, freedom of choice is clearly impeded. Books like Erhman’s open up real choice to people who might not otherwise realize they even have options. This is upsetting to some people…But they need to ask themselves what ‘truth’ should have to fear from facts. If my version of truth cannot withstand the full brunt of complete disclosure of facts, my version of truth requires re-examination…”

I’m not sure what else to say about it. I no longer have any dogma or doctrine that requires defense against reality or facts or data. I can accept whatever I observe and see how it fits into the rest of the facts and data. If it doesn’t fit, I can re-evaluate the whole enchilada if I have to. Nothing need be too sacred to examine. No question need remain unanswered merely because it’s a taboo of the highest order to even ask it. I have no stake in any “belief” any longer. It can now be purely about truth alone. I have nothing of value that requires me to reject data. In fact, I doubt I would today be capable of valuing anything that would require such a thing from me. I have no bias I’m aware of that causes me to deny what can be observed or to distort its meaning so that it force-fits within my preconceived framework of reality. But as a Christian, I could not have honestly claimed that.

Aggressive Atheist Extremists

Maybe you’ve seen the PhillyCOR billboard recently? Floaty clouds on a blue sky, with the text “Don’t believe in god?” on top, and “You are not alone,” on the bottom. It’s an invitation to disenfranchised atheists to get in touch with local humanist, atheist, free-thought or secular organizations in their areas. And it’s as inoffensive a message as I’ve ever seen from any atheist group. No attack on religion. No invitation to anyone to reconsider their beliefs. Just a note to those who already don’t believe, who think they’re on their own, to encourage them and let them know there are like-minded people “out there” who would like to get to know them and offer them camaraderie and community involvement. PhillyCOR actually even works alongside religious organizations to support charitable endeavors.

So, here again we have the age-old question: Is there any way—at all—that an atheist can express his opinion that won’t be considered an attack on or offense to believers?

The answer, PhillyCOR has now made clear, is “no.”

In an interview with Fox News, Family Research Council’s own Peter Sprigg had this to say about the board:

“This billboard in Philadelphia seems to represent a trend—a new assertiveness, even aggressiveness on the part of atheists.”

You heard right. Putting up a billboard to let like-minded people know you exist—people who often think they are utterly alone—is “aggressive.” The billboard represents—is part of—a trend of “aggressiveness.” Am I to assume that Sprigg has never seen a Christian billboard before? He should come to Austin, where he would be able to see several in a five mile stretch in any direction. And they don’t just appeal to other Christians—they appeal to everyone to come to church, accept Jesus, believe in god, convert to Christianity. Would Sprigg label Christians as a “hyper aggressive” group, then? I’m guessing not—but to be consistent, he actually would have to. If atheists today are “aggressive,” I can’t see how Sprigg doesn’t consider Christians to be hovering over the edge of “dangerous.”

Further, this man who claims atheists are being “aggressive” has the following to add:

“Atheists are very vigorous in promoting the separation of church and state, but with the extreme way that they interpret that concept, you would basically eliminate every mention of god from the public square, and that would amount to the establishment of atheism.”

First of all, it’s not about eliminating the mention of anything from any “public square.” People in the public square, speaking as private citizens, can say whatever they like. It’s people and institutions that are in any way representatives of government that cannot, and should not, promote any religious perspective—including the existence or nonexistence of any god or gods. That’s a little different, and perhaps a subtlety that is lost on people like Sprigg—although, if I am to speak frankly, I don’t believe it’s lost on him at all. I believe it to be an intentional misrepresentation—a strawman—intended to rile religious masses, because Sprigg knows that an accurate representation would not be nearly as compelling and effective in attaining that goal.

Free advice: When someone misrepresents their case, always, always, always ask “why?”

And while I am on misrepresentations, another interesting fact that Sprigg seems to conveniently have misplaced, is that one of the most active entities promoting separation of church and state is a group headed by the Reverend Barry Lynn, who often speaks on behalf of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Since Sprigg’s group is so very interested in separation issues, I can’t imagine he is unaware of this. And yet, he promotes separation as an “atheist vs. theist” issue, in order to launch an unfounded attack on atheists and rally undeserved support to his own agenda to use the government, openly and unapologetically, to promote a worldview that just happens to align with conservative Christian religious ideologies.

Asking Sprigg to not use our government as a vehicle to push his religion onto others is somehow an “establishment of atheism.” I have pointed out before, but perhaps not at this blog, that asking that the government remove “under god” is in no way the equivalent of asking them to add “without a god” to the Pledge. Ensuring everyone, theists and atheists alike, is free from government sanctioned, promoted, or imposed religious ideology allows everyone, theists and atheists alike, the freedom to exercise their religion, or no religion, as they wish, by putting all religious ideologies on the same playing field—a field that is, and ever should be, found exclusively in the court of private practice.

The level of projection Sprigg employs is at least as bad as anything I have seen from any theist so far. He effortlessly scales the heights of hypocrisy as he accuses others of stepping out of line who are not, while he is guilty of absolutely all that he accuses. Ironically, even if atheists were guilty of all he accuses, they would be doing no more or less than their Sprigg-encouraged Christian counterparts, in so far as pushing their agenda via government and posting and promoting their ideology as far and wide as possible. So, how could Sprigg possibly criticize, even if atheists were guilty, without showing himself up as a raging hypocrite?

The real issue here is that Sprigg wants Christianity to enjoy special privilege and treatment from society, as well as from the government, without being able to actually explain why special status is merited. I would never advocate promoting atheism using the government. And yet, if I did, any criticism from Sprigg could be nothing less than stunning, as I’d be doing no more than he and his organization and religion are doing already (and have been doing for quite a long time).

It’s actually competition Sprigg fears—not competition from others asking government to endorse their religious views, too, but the competition that would exist if his own religious view was no longer allowed to use the government as a prop—if it had to exist, horror of horrors, on the same level upon which all other religious views and ideas are now safely relegated—far beneath his own. It isn’t that he thinks it’s wrong to empower and utilize the government to promote religious views at all. His actions illustrate that he very much supports using government to promote religious views and policies. They also illustrate, in no uncertain terms, that his real beef is that he wants his particular brand of religion to be the only one that gets to do it.

Synchronicity

Sometimes the brain makes connections between things that are seemingly unconnected or only distantly or abstractly related. Recently, a series of oddly related events came together for me in a way that I wanted to share.

First, I came across a comment in another forum last week that mentioned a model known as Morton’s Demon. I hadn’t heard of this before, but it is apparently a metaphorical representation of how people maintain beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence. The Demon sits at the gateway of the mind and allows only that data to pass that supports currently held beliefs and values, while barring any information that conflicts. I suppose to some degree anyone is susceptible, but, I think it’s fair to say, some more than others.

Next, a few days ago, I called someone I know, but the call was intercepted by a third party, and a conversation began. During this conversation, the topic of Arctic oil drilling was briefly broached. Just to note, I did not raise the issue, and I’m extremely ill informed on the topic. However, the “logic” presented by this person was, let’s say, unusual, and went something like this: The oil platforms in the Gulf withstood Katrina, therefore it is unreasonable to worry about potential problems drilling in the Arctic.

Without thinking, my first response was, “Have you ever seen an oil spill?” The answer was, “Yes, from a ship, but not from a platform.” My next natural question was, “How are they planning to move this oil?” Don’t get me wrong. I don’t know if the intent is to use pipelines or ships, I was simply asking, aloud, the first questions that came to mind. The topic switched quickly, and I didn’t pursue it.

Finally, also a few days ago, I was excited to see not one, but two small owls hanging around in my backyard. Being ignorant regarding owls, I decided to research online to determine the species. I was having no luck, when someone suggested I check the Audubon Web site.

At the site, there was a link to an article about the potential impact of oil excavation in the Arctic . At any other time, I might have skipped right over it, but after my recent phone conversation, I decided to give it a read. My reaction to the article was that although its claims seemed reasonable, I would have liked to have seen some references and citations to support the claims and statistics put forward.

The article basically claims that there are engineering challenges that are presented by this region that are not presented in other regions we have so far excavated for oil. I would say that the Arctic presents a very different environment, in many regards, than, for example, the Gulf area; and it seems at least reasonable to accept that materials and processes could react differently in that far colder climate. The article also claimed that seismic exploration would be used, and that this could have a negative impact on species of whales known to use local waterways. That whales are using the area appears to be causing the local Indians some concern, because they still hunt some whale species to survive—again, according to the article. And finally, as this location becomes commercial, the article notes that increased shipping traffic can be anticipated; which is also a concern—and that makes sense to me, because I’ve seen the impact of recreational boating and commercial shipping on waterways, having lived in Florida, Pittsburgh, and Austin.

So, deciding that the article was rational, if not supported by citations, I forwarded the link to my pal and asked in my subject line, “I wonder what Audubon has to gain from lying like this?” I added no further content. I received a short reply later that same day, presented here in its brief entirety:

“I don’t know why they do stuff like this. Look around you and you will see oil rigs pumping all over the place and cattle grazing right next to them. Also the area is not as big as PA. It is really a small area and it so happens in that particular area there are very few Polar Bears. I hesitate to get into this because the media is so liberal and it seems to me the Democrats of which I use to be one, want to ruin our country stopping us from doing anything and everything that would make things better and easier for us all. No matter how good of an idea someone comes up with, if it didn’t come from an Democrat they will vote against it.”

When I examined this, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It appeared that he was initially reasoning that since cattle exist well enough in prairie oil fields, that I should extrapolate Arctic wildlife would fare just as well (since domestic cattle and wild whales are nearly equivalent?)—and that, somehow, I should consider the two ecosystems are comparable, when clearly they are not when I “look around.”

The next assumption is that size dictates importance. True, when I “look around,” I sometimes see that small things are unimportant, but sometimes I see that they can be very important. There are some substances required by the human body, for example, without which it will cease to function normally (or at all)—even though they may be required in very small amounts. It is never safe to assume without knowledge that in any interdependent system, the mere size of a component dictates the overall importance of the component to the smooth operation of the system as a whole.

As far as polar bears being few in the region, again, I’m ignorant. But, if the animal is already struggling as a species, then “few” may be significant. I have no knowledge of how populous polar bears are in the areas considered for drilling, but one thought that pops into my head goes something like, “Why would the Audubon Society knowingly inflate polar bear population figures? How would they benefit by a public disinformation campaign?” Honestly, I don’t mean to imply there’s no one at Audubon who might benefit. But I can’t really miss the clear, immediate benefit to oil companies, and politicians supported by them, to be able to drill in previously restricted areas. I am, then, fully aware of a clear bias on one side of this issue, while I remain ignorant, but open to hearing more about what potential bias the other side might harbor.

To be fair, my friend appears to be trying to explain the Audubon Society’s bias—in an odd, convoluted way. It seems he reasons that media supports liberals, and I’m sure that he means that “Democrats” are “liberals,” but he provides no explanation about how the media actually benefits from lying. I can “look around” and see media’s advertising dollars pouring in, mainly from industries and corporations—so there’s hardly an obvious financial incentive for the media to promote articles that oppose oil drilling, while they support themselves with the money they generate annually from Chevron, Exxon, Shell, and Mobil. The “benefit,” I’m being told, is that they merely wish to be contrary to the Republicans, so much so that they would rather harm the nation (and their own revenues) than support a Republican idea that would actually benefit everyone. Why they hate Republicans and cater to Democrat liberals is sort of glossed over. But they are, according to this line of reason, willing to shoot themselves in the foot financially, and potentially harm themselves and the rest of us, purely for the sake of being disagreeable.

The Audubon Society, I take it, then, is not actually a group that supports conservation, but is, rather, a front for the liberal anti-Republican Democrat agenda. Likewise, the Inupiaq tribe actually knows the whales are in no danger. They simply like to disagree with Republicans, too. Have marine biologists, oceanographers, geologists, climatologists weighed in on this? If so, do those who land on the side of caution also wish only to destroy the planet for anti-Republican spite? What a poor, persecuted group the Republicans ar
e—according to my friend. Very much like another group I frequently hear about that suffers from similar persecution.

So, my friend appears to believe that people in all areas of conservation and research who err on the side of caution in this debate, are only claiming to be concerned with conservation, but are actually just Democrat sympathizers who care nothing for the welfare of the planet and only want to be on the opposite side of absolutely anything U.S. Republicans endorse. A global conspiracy of Republican haters.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, let me just reiterate that this post is not intended as an analysis of the Arctic drilling situation. I’m ignorant. I’m not taking sides. I have not even attempted to take a position on the issue. I am, however, taking a position on the soundness of one citizen’s logic and argumentation in defense of the drilling. I do not presume that his argument represents the “best” argument offered; in fact, I think it’s only fair for me to assume it could not possibly be.

I’m merely pointing out that someone is seriously asking me to accept the position that it’s more reasonable to believe (a) large numbers of diverse groups falsely claim to care about the planet while they are actually lying for spite, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment, rather than (b) large corporations and the politicians they support are lying in order to gain gobs and gobs of money, even if it means harming themselves, other people or the environment. When I take my friend’s advice and “look around,” I can’t deny I’ve seen some individuals and, to some degree, small groups do “a,” however, I’ve seen “b” too many times to even begin to count.

I should also give a hat tip to the line, “…of which I use to be one.” How many times have any of us heard, “I used to be a nonbeliever…”, as though that argument is any more compelling to me as it would be to them if I were to say, “I used to be a Christian…” Has that line of idiocy ever altered anyone’s opinion about god?

And this is atheist-related how, exactly? Here’s where I’m back to synchronicity and Morton’s Demon. Compartmentalization is old hat in atheist discussions—the idea that people can reason perfectly well except with regard to one or two particular emotional issues. But here, I have an example of someone using Morton’s Demon in a political context. And he is, just to note, also a Christian. And, just to stir the pot a bit, I’ll go ahead and add that I also know this person denies we walked on the Moon, thinks Evolution doesn’t happen, and has some interesting opinions about 9-11. So, I’m surprised, and even a bit amazed, that his particular Demon is able to keep up with all the information he has to work to sort and divert. If ever I felt sympathy for a metaphorical figure, it is now, when the simple thought of all that labor literally fatigues me.

Here is where I am supposed to reveal the secret of how to effectively respond to Morton’s Demon. The truth is, though, I’ve got nothing. In order to know how to effectively counter him, I’d have to have some idea why he’s considered necessary by those who employ him. Maybe it’s like someone who suspects he has cancer refusing to visit a doctor because he doesn’t want to know? Can life and reality really be just a “cancer” to so many? From what I’ve seen, willful ignorance and self-deceit create a tangled web that must be intricately woven throughout all areas of our lives and minds. In the same way harm to a tiny ecological region might cause damaging ripples throughout an entire planetary system, so willful ignorance and self-deceit can ripple through entire worldviews—poisoning the mind and producing poorly informed behaviors that impact everyone and everything within reach.

I’m beginning to question what exactly “compartmentalization” is. Might it be confined to those who don’t take their religious beliefs too seriously? Is it that some are religious by rote, so that their beliefs don’t have to integrate, because they don’t actually hold them in the forefront (or, in some cases, even the remotest corners) of their minds? Is that “compartmentalization”? I am having trouble understanding how someone could believe—consciously and thoughtfully believe—many common religious doctrines without those beliefs requiring protection in other areas—most other areas—of their worldviews and minds. Can I hold to an unreasonable belief that informs all of my most basic human values and interpretations, and not also require protection from information in nearly every other area of my life? Is that realistic? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure anymore.

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?