Mechanisms of Religious Evil (Lecture)

We haven’t had a show since before the holidays, so maybe everyone’s ready for a little dose of video atheism. I gave this lecture Sunday as part of the Atheist Community of Austin Lecture Series.

In the lecture, I explore what religious evil is, where it comes from, and how it can be mitigated. Please feel free to critique the lecture with your comments. I promise to read everything and use it to improve the lecture in future versions.

If lectures are not your cup of tea, The Atheist Experience will be back on the air Sunday, January 9th at the usual time.


Don Baker on “Mechanisms of Religious Evil”

Mp3 audio is available here and the PowerPoint slides are available here.

Not quite the double standard you were thinking

Hey, kids. Yes, I’m back. Been back a few days in fact. And I’m finally ready to post again, so here’s my first, in reply to a letter received responding to the conversation with Behe fan “Garry” on the last show I did with Matt. Our correspondent begins:

I am an undergraduate student at the University of Florida, and I am a friendly/open-minded agnostic theist. So with my introduction out of the way, here is my email:

In the Problem of Evil debate, skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence formulate their argumentation as follows:

(1) If there were an all-good, all-knowing and all-powerful God, then (due to His unlimited knowledge and unlimited power) He would be able to prevent gratuitous/pointless evil and suffering that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(2) Because God would have such a capability, and because He is supposedly all-good, he would act on that capability and prevent the gratuitous/pointless suffering and evil that is not necessary for an adequately compensating good.

(3) But, there is lots of evils and sufferings that occur in the world (which have not been prevented by the supposed all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God), and much of it is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good (and therefore seems to be gratuitous/pointless).

(4) Therefore, the conclusion is that there does not exist a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-good.

Now, many theists argue against the argument of ‘The Problem of Evil’ presented above by way of refuting premise (3) and saying that there is no evil that is gratuitous/pointless, and that all evil is logically necessary for adequately compensating goods. One of the ways in which they do this is by presenting ‘The Contrast Response,’ which basically says that if there were no evil in the world, we would not be aware of the good. God then allows evil to make us aware of goodness, since this awareness in itself is a good.

But, many skeptics and/or non-believers of God’s existence do not accept ‘The Contrast Response’ because they claim that it is not necessarily the case that our minds work this way. Essentially, they believe that we would still be aware of goodness even if there were less (or even no) evil to contrast it. So they say that ‘The Contrast Response’ is logically invalid.

That being said, I am assuming that you (Matt and Martin) are not exceptions (and have the same point of contention in regards to ‘The Contrast Response’).

So if I am actually correct about my assumption and your point of contention and belief that our minds don’t need contrasting things in order to be aware of (or recognize) non-contrasting things, why then (in episode # 660, which occurred on Sunday, 6/06/2010 and while responding to Garry from Manhattan, NY and his example of irreducibly complex systems) did you (Matt and Martin) flip the contrast response (which you do not accept as being valid in the problem of evil argument) around in order to claim (within the context of the argument of creationism) that in order to know if something was created, we have to first have an example of something that wasn’t created to compare it with (or contrast it to)? To me, this seems like a logically fallacious contradiction???

Our correspondent is wrong in his assumption of where I stand on “The Contrast Response.” I don’t reject the notion that a knowledge of the difference between good and evil is a vital element of ascertaining one’s moral positions. What I reject is the notion that an omnibenevolent God is necessary for such an understanding, especially one who would continue to allow gratuitous evils to occur long after the human race had well and truly understood those differences and had established laws to punish them. Why, in this day and age, would God allow (to use the most button-mashing of examples) the continued sexual abuse of children? Are there significant pockets of human civilization (apart from the Vatican) who still do not understand this is a deplorable act, and therefore, children must still be put through the anguish of sexual abuse in order to make those people aware of its evil, and of the goodness of not abusing children in contrast?

Another objection would be that, even if one accepts the notion of God’s allowing acts of evil in the world for the sake of “compensating goods” (and I don’t know that I accept the idea of non-victims of evil realizing how lucky they are to be a “compensating good”), this would still not absolve God of the moral responsibility to stop such acts of evil when he can. Honestly, in what way would God’s refusal to prevent the sexual abuse of a child — thereby presumably allowing us to experience the horror of the act so as to better appreciate it when children aren’t raped — constitute a better “compensating good” than for him simply to blast the assailant to smithereens with a well-aimed lightning bolt? Who would be sitting around thinking, “Gosh, I don’t understand, why did God do that to that poor man?”

Why establish good and evil as concepts if not to enforce them? A common argument in theodicy is that God must allow evil for an understanding of good. But how are we mere mortals expected to reach such an understanding if God doesn’t explain which is which and punish the evil when it happens? Instead, it seems we are meant to work it out for ourselves which are good and evil acts, as God apparently cannot interfere in the interests of not undermining our supposed free will.

The great irony of this form of theodicy is that it ends up rendering God irrelevant. Atheists and secular moralists do argue that we are the ones responsible for determining the differences between good and evil…but that we are perfectly capable of doing this by using our intellects and our empathy to evaluate the consequences of human actions, rejecting those which are destructive.

Any theodicy that proposes a God as the architect of moral precepts, only to immediately take Him out of the picture, leaving humanity to deal with good and evil on our own, pragmatic terms, might as well concede the argument and pack it in. A God who refuses to prevent gratuitous destructive acts for any reason is one who has, if He exists, surrendered His moral authority and is deserving of no thanks from us.

Additionally, even if I am wrong about my assumption [and you guys actually DO accept the contrast response as a good response to the problem of evil—or reject it for another reason that I have not presented above—(and therefore have not contradicted yourselves)], why do you even find the merit in asking a theist to provide an example of something that was not created, anyways? Essentially, asking a theist to provide an example of something that wasn’t created is unfair, because if he/she is a common theist and believes that God exists, he/she also believes that EVERYTHING [including natural things] in our physical universe was created by Him (which would mean that to the theist there would be no example of an uncreated thing that he/she could provide, because no such example would exist).

As such, the theist’s lack of ability to provide such an example does not prove (or even serve to insinuate) that there was no creator (or God). Moreover, it only further begs the question. So essentially, I think that asking Garry to provide such an example was an invalid (and therefore unnecessary) form of argumentation.

This is because, like Garry, you fail to understand that a key component of any scientific hypothesis — which is what ID wants to be — is falsifiability. In order to determine if your hypothesis is even valid in its basic premises, you have to be able to answer this question: “If what I am proposing is not true, what conditions would I expect to find existing today?” Therefore someone insisting that life was intelligently designed must be able to answer, “If life were not designed, what would it look like?” It’s hardly unfair or invalid. It’s basic science.

And y
es, this question has been answered in regards to evolution, and very simply. When asked what he thought would falsify evolution, biologist J.B.S. Haldane answered simply, “Fossil rabbits in the pre-Cambrian.” If anything in the fossil record were not where it was supposed to be in the timeline, this would be a problem. But it has not been a problem. Indeed, evolutionary theory has been validated many times in its predictive power, another important factor establishing scientific validity. Tiktaalik was found right where paleontologists were sure a certain transitional fossil of its type would have to be found if it existed at all.

If insisting that Garry state the way in which ID or any other design hypothesis was falsifiable was “unfair,” it can only be in the way a scientifically illiterate fellow set himself up to be humiliated in his ignorance on live television. But that’s hardly our fault. If some creationist calls us, trying to peddle an inferior product, and proceeds to lecture authoritatively on a subject about which he is in fact ignorant, a little humiliation is the least he has coming.

Random Thought on Epicurus

PoE in summary:

http://twobluecrabs.com/?p=127

Something I wrote in a dialog about PoE, I thought I’d share. The context was a story someone told me about a childhood friend who died, and a statement by an adult subsequently that it was all part of god’s wonderful plan for us (that somehow the suffering would result in a net benefit):

“If god is omnipotent, these same results could have been achieved without suffering. Ergo, god prefers suffering as a means to an end, even when the same results could have been achieved without suffering. It’s like a dentist who chooses to not use pain killers, because he simply prefers to achieve the healthy tooth result via horrid suffering, with no added benefit. Theists seem to think that the only alternative is god making us ‘robots.’ But if god is omnipotent, he could achieve the same result without suffering and without making us robots–that’s the cool thing about omnipotence, you are free from constraints. If god is so constrained, then as Epicurus said, god is not omnipotent. But if god is omnipotent, then making people suffer unnecessarily is something he does without need or increased benefit. He simply prefers to make people suffer unnecessarily. He’s either not omnipotent or malevolent. So long as suffering exists, you can’t have both.”

It’s amazing how quickly theists will sell out god’s omnipotence to make god “good” in response to Epicurus. He goes from all powerful to utterly constrained in no time at all.

Reflections on a lazy Sunday

Apparently the Christians had some big holiday today. I thought today would be a good day to gaze upon all the signs and wonders in this big wide world of ours and make an assessment of just how vividly their God is — um — making his presence known. Or not.

  1. Well, somebody must have pissed the Big G off in New Hampshire. While worshipers at the Alton Bay Christian Conference Center were celebrating Zombie Jesus, a fire broke out that eventually barbecued 52 of the center’s buildings. All I could think of here was, “They had 52 buildings? Whatever for?” Maybe God was wondering the same thing, and this little conflagration was by way of being a friendly suggestion they ought to consolidate. Or at least, add fire extinguishers to the budget next time.
  2. Now, here’s the kind of article one has to be careful with, because it can come across as making fun of death and misfortune, which I’d only ever do if the person in question was Ann Coulter or Garth Brooks. In this case, a retired priest in Pennsylvania plowed his car into a group of worshipers following a Good Friday service, killing one, 89-year-old Madeline Romell. My response to this is a combination of “Poor lady” and “What a dumbass!” Yes, I’m sure he’s horrified about the accident and all. But the elephant in the room no one’s discussing? Why, the fact that God did nothing to prevent this unnecessary tragedy, even something small and entirely within the skillset of an all-powerful being, like causing one of the car’s tires to blow out, or the fuel line to be clogged. Christians offer comfort to themselves by claiming God allows these kinds of tragedies as a way of sending us a message or teaching us some obscure lesson. What will they say it was in this case, I wonder? Stupid accident, some poor old woman dead, other people hurt, and all they’d been doing was praising you, God old boy. So, you know. WTF? Oh yes. You’re imaginary.
  3. And last but not least, our latest bout of criminal Christians, including the Sunday School teacher who has been arrested and accused of the murder of that 8-year-old girl in California, and the 42-year-old Focus on the Family employee charged in Colorado Springs with attempting to solicit sex online from what he thought was an adolescent girl, but was actually — what will they think of next!? — a cop posing as an adolescent girl! D’oh! Insert obligatory “Bubba’s bitch” jokes here. Funnily enough, this later arrest came on the day James Dobson was giving his organization his farewell address, bemoaning that the Christian Right had pretty much lost the “culture war” and that we were all “awash in sin.” Thing is, the “sin” he’s thinking of was not in reference to the actions of his own employee, but seems to be limited to Bill Clinton and the internet. Hell, if that’s all it took to beat you guys, you really weren’t trying. Then again, Jim, if, as you claim, “God is in control” still, then you might want to consider what that means for His opinion of you, considering your bleak admission of defeat, eh?

And in other news, Jesus and Generalissimo Francisco Franco are still dead.

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?

What will it take?

Christians often ask atheists the above question. What kind of evidence would it take to convince us of God’s existence? I’d like to turn the question back to them. What would it take to convince them that maybe God is just a product of their imaginations and wishful thinking?

Allow me to preface this with an unambiguous statement. People dying is never funny (well, okay — except for Pauly Shore), and posts like this are not meant as a “ha ha!” to believers in any way. But there’s a disconnect here that I’d really like explained to me.

Short version: Busload of evangelical Christians is swept off a bridge in San Salvador by a swollen river, at least 30 die. Was God looking out for those people? Did he sit back and let them die for a reason? How do believers square this kind of thing with the Problem of Evil? Really, I’d like to know how Christians process an event like this in such a way as to continue to permit themselves their beliefs in a loving heavenly father. Do these kinds of events — tragically affecting those whom you’d think God would be most inclined to protect — ever bring Christians a moment’s pause? Or is that all it is: a pause, before the rationalizations kick in? Or is there a convincing argument to be made in defense of God here? Doesn’t it seem like these kinds of situations would present God with exactly the opportunity for miraculous intervention that would silence the atheists of the world immediately with direct empirical evidence of his loving grace?

God likes you better if you’re a white missionary

That old selective God is at work again, doling out random miracles to some while flipping the divine bird at others. Story at CNN about a plane crash in the Congo, which some members of a missionary family survived by crawling through a hole torn through the fuselage by another survivor desperate to escape the wreckage. Naturally, they credit the Invisible Space Fairy for their survival.

Marybeth Mosier, 51, suffered a black eye and bruised ribs, said her husband, who added that he was unhurt.

“We couldn’t believe that our family of four could all escape a plane that was crashed and on fire, but by God’s mercy, we did,” he said.

Mosier said he believes the family made it for a reason.

“I think the Lord has a plan for us, otherwise we wouldn’t have survived,” he said. “He still has work for us to do.”

Regarding the 36 people who died in the crash, Mosier had no opinion. Obviously God had no plan for them nor any work for them to do, so they were no great loss. Probably black too.


Okay. I admit it. That last sentence was a cheap shot. As stupid and offensive as I think it is for people to think they’re privileged by their deity of choice over others, obviously, there’s no basis to think there’s anything racist about these missionaries, since they are, after all, over in Africa doing something they think is a good thing for the locals. Living in America surrounded by the racist ravings of right-wing sleazebags, it’s easy to slip into the unfair “these bad apples over here spoil the entire batch” view. One set of absurd beliefs does not imply the person subscribes to another set as well.

What still hasn’t been reported about the bomber

The would-be family planning clinic bomber Paul Ross Evans was indicted today on a number of charges, including attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction. He got most of the materials for his bomb at a local Wal-Mart and used his credit card for the purchase. It didn’t take too much effort to solve the crime. He faces a potential sentence of life in prison. Apparently, he realized the seriousness of his little stunt while awaiting trial and he made a suicide attempt.

It might be interesting to readers to know that this event occurred in Austin Texas, the home town of the Atheist Experience. While Austin is a great place to live, we have our nuts, too.

The press has been eerily silent about the motivations of this guy. Anybody who pays the slightest bit of attention to the culture war knows that the only people who care about making trouble for family planning clinics are the hard-core Christian conservatives. I’ll bet anyone that this guy had some religious indoctrination along the way. I wonder if he didn’t get some of that faith-based programming while he was in prison earlier. I seriously doubt the mainstream media will look into the question, given their pro-religion bias. Believers certainly don’t like to be confronted with the reality that belief (denying reality) has bad consequences. It’s bad for newspaper sales.

The press has reported that the guy has no known affiliations to terrorist groups, but I think perhaps it’s time we broaden the definition of terrorist groups to include some more of these religious extremists. It seems that there is some confusion about what kind of crime the Department of Homeland Security is supposed to go after. If this sort of bombing isn’t an example of domestic terrorism, I don’t know what is. Meanwhile, DHS is apparently charged with going after child predators, yet the leaders of the largest pedophile organization in modern history still flaunt the law, impede investigations, and roam free. Can anybody guess who they are? Perhaps it’s time we stop giving religious believers a free ride in the morality department. After all, aren’t they supposed to adhere to a higher standard?

Back to the Paul Ross Evans story, I can’t help but point out the irony of “pro life” people trying to plot murders. “Pro life” seems to be little more than a marketing device. If you believe that human bodies are just soul traps, that souls are the essence of a person, and that it’s the ultimate destiny of the soul to escape the trap, you’re naturally going to de-value human life. Not surprisingly, countries with more believers also have more suicides and murders. …Oh, and higher abortion rates, too. (Too many ironies for one paragraph. That last point really calls for a separate post.) You can bet that Paul Ross Evans believes that humans have souls. He might even believe that he’ll have a special place in Heaven because of his actions.

I have yet to get a definite theological answer on what becomes of the alleged souls of aborted embryos, since Christians seem to think they have them. This question is especially important now that the Vatican has backpedaled on their invention of limbo. If those little buggers go automatically to heaven, then maybe killing them isn’t so bad, as Andrea Yates correctly concluded. If they go to hell, as original sin would indicate, then we have to wonder how Christians live with the fact that their “gift” of free will from a benevolent God is the cause of the infinite torture of innocent little babies.

Religion is the answer (they’re selling)

Did you ever notice that whatever the problem, religion is plugged as the answer? Case in point: last week’s Virginia Tech shootings. A student goes haywire and kills a bunch of people–not good. Religious leaders then get asked by the faithful, “Where was God during all of this?” It seems like a reasonable question to ask of someone who believes in an omniscient, omnipotent, and omni-benevolent god.

Atheists would answer it simply that God is a figment of people’s imagination. Such things more often cause killings than prevent them. For example, 9/11, Andrea Yates, stem cell research bans, Branch Davidians, Jim Jones, Inquisition, Gott Mit Uns, Heaven’s Gate, etc., etc., etc. In this particular case, figments of your imagination are irrelevant to the reality of the shooter, so it’s obvious that your God can’t intervene. Next question?

Religious leaders know that if you’re asking such questions, you’re thinking. And if you’re thinking, you’re not blindly believing, which is bad for their business. So religious leaders shut down the line of questioning and instead promote their magic cure-all elixir: religion.

For James Kennedy, the answer to “where was God?”, is “He was hanging on the cross. (Just passing time flapping away, apparently.) “The cross is God’s ultimate solution to sorrow and suffering.” Pay attention grieving Virginia Tech students: you are vile wretches that deserve to be tortured for all eternity for your lack of faith. Kennedy will gladly sell you the cure, though, the smilin’ bleedin’ Jesus for the bargain price of a tithe. Ah, that Christian love is in the springtime air.

Ken Ham, the Answers in Genesis creationist used-religion salesman, used the tragedy to point out that if you think the answer to the tragedy has anything to do with sin, you damn well better believe in that 6-day creation he’s been flogging. The Bible is literally true, don’t you know. To translate his point, if you don’t believe in that 6-day creation crap, why should you believe anything about the concept of sin. Atheists would certainly agree with this line of reasoning. Perhaps this is why his posting was removed from the AiG web site. (Oh, and by the way, he says, isn’t it great that creationism was launched at Virginia Tech by a civil engineering instructor? Let’s pour a little embarrassment into the wound.)

For gall, Franklin Graham is hard to beat. Out of the goodness of his heart, he’s ready to send hundreds of “grief counselors” trained to convert to Christianity those who are emotionally vulnerable, “as we have done in many situations since 9/11 in New York City.” He’s even got some VT students on his web site helping to promote his extreme generosity with strings attached. I wonder if those “grief counselors” think that converting people to Christianity helps their chances of going to heaven. Franklin Graham also runs one of the groups distributing federal faith-based AIDS relief in Africa where they can get their “good news” across because their victims know that they need the provided medicine to live. Charity, indeed.

Does religion have anything to offer in the VT shooting? No. Does religion have anything to offer in any situation? No. These people are plugging religion because they make money from it. It’s all just self-serving promotion at the expense of others, just as Martin predicted last week.

Worst. Monday. Ever.

By now I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the lunatic armed rampage at Virginia Tech that has, as of this writing, claimed at least 31 lives.

What will be nearly as hideous as these crimes is the fact that in the coming days, numerous groups — a number of which I imagine will belong to the Christian Right — are sure to co-opt this tragedy as they did Columbine for their own political gain, exploiting all this pain and suffering to propel more bombastic propaganda into the media that this is why we need the Bible and the Ten Commandments and forced prayer in schools and in the government, etc., etc.

Of course, I suppose I could be accused of exploiting the event to point to it as yet another piece of ironclad, irrefutable proof of the nonexistence of God. Difference is, I’d be right. But who’s right or wrong here will be no consolation to the families of the victims. Our condolensces go out to them all.


Update — tol’jaso!: Wingnut Coulter-wannabe Debbie Schlussel is first out of the gate with a Muslim terrorist conspiracy theory, based solely on the fact that the shooter was identified as “Asian” in some news reports. Nothing like a little right-wing racial profiling to heal a shattered community in a time of tragedy, eh?


Yet another update: Now Bush seems to be thinking a visit to VT would be the ideal photo op to boost his flagging approval ratings. Never mind that what happened today is a mild day in Baghdad. Thanks but no thanks, chimpy.


The updates keep comin’: Well well well, Debbie. Turns out our shooter was a South Korean who’d been in the country since 1992 and who’s been described, as so many unhinged lunatics seem to be, as a “loner”. There goes your Muslim conspiracy theory. I just don’t know how to contain my surprise.

The shooter apparently left behind a note railing against “debauchery” and “deceitful charlatans.” Meanwhile, deceitful charlatan Ken Ham, the creationist fool responsible for that momument to ignorance in Kentucky, has wasted no time blaming “naturalism” and “atheism”.