It’s smiting time!

The last time we encountered Christian evangelist Ray Comfort he was, along with his trusty sidekick the Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, arguing that the exquisite design of the banana was absolute proof of the existence of god. The banana, Comfort pointed out, was “the atheist’s nightmare.”

You said it, Ray! You convinced me. Now whenever I eat a banana, I cannot help but think of god carefully tinkering with its design so that it could be easily eaten by me.

But Comfort is not content to simply demolish evolution with such brilliant arguments. He also runs a Q/A on his website providing deep insights into other metaphysical questions, the kinds that have baffled philosophers and theologians for centuries.

He recently responded to a theodicy question posed by a reader identifying herself as Weemaryanne.

There’ve been several hundred gay marriages enacted in California in the past few days. Maybe a couple of thousand by now, I haven’t checked the numbers. And in the non-gay-marrying Midwest, they’re fighting floods, while in California it’s fair and dry. How is The Golden State managing to escape the wrath of your imaginary friend, I wonder?

This is a fair question, something that I too had been wondering about. While the obvious sinfulness of the people of New Orleans was clearly the cause of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, why was god mad at the people of Iowa who, by all outward signs anyway, seem like people whose worst vice is growing obscene amounts of corn?

By snarkily referring to god as ‘your imaginary friend’ Weemaryanne (which I suspect is not her real name) was revealed as a godless hussy. This infidel clearly thought that she had caught Comfort in an embarrassing contradiction. She did not realize that his ministry is not called The Way of the Master for nothing. The Master shot back at her with that incisive logical reasoning that has put atheists on the run everywhere.

Maryanne. At present there are 840 wild-fires that are burning at once in California, destroying many homes. The fires were started by lightning strikes. Guess who’s in charge of the electrical department? These are from thunder storms that have no rain. Guess who gives the rain? You said “while in California it’s fair and dry.” We are having the worst drought in our recorded history. Last year 1,155 homes were destroyed. You live in an imaginary world. I suggest you get out more.

Ha, ha! That’s telling her, Ray! Of course god hates gay-marriage-loving California, as well he should, and is busily smiting people there at this very moment. Weemaryanne has probably crawled back to her terrorist-loving, Islamofascist, feminazi witches coven after that elegantly delivered smackdown by The Master.

But while that explained that the sinful Californians were very much in god’s crosshairs, Comfort unfortunately did not address the issue of why Iowans were being smitten (smote?) at all. That was, however, explained by another Christian by the name of Jason Werner, a god-loving man who apparently resides in my very own city of Cleveland. He investigated what was going on in that seemingly bucolic state and was shocked by the incontrovertible evidence of Iowa’s appalling sinfulness.

I learned that Cedar Rapids was an absolute city of corruption. There are about 124,000 residents in the actual city. And in Iowa, gambling is legal, whereby there are 17 casinos. Embryonic stem-cell research is funded. Liberal governors have run the state into the ground for the past 20 years including a former conservative Republican many years ago. Human cloning is legal. Referendums by the citizens are often shot down. Spending for education is the most consistent increase of any issue. The University of Iowa is among the ten best colleges to party in the country. The University of Iowa is very homosexual-oriented. Grinnell is extremely homosexual-oriented. I found five blood alleys in Cedar Rapids. Homosexual organizations are very popular in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Prostitution and adult entertainment is actually worse than Cleveland, which has a population of nearly 400,000. There were nearly 100 bars in a radius of one mile although the nearby college is dry.

Wow! Am I glad that I don’t live in that cesspool!

But I am getting a little nervous. While god is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, he does not seem to be omniaccurate. His punishments for sinfulness, like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, etc., seem a little indiscriminate, risking the lives of the innocent along with the guilty. He seems to get a little carried away when he gets angry and in a smitin’ mood and lets fly in all directions, like the Incredible Hulk or the people one reads about in the papers who snap under pressure and let loose with automatic weapons in crowded places. I am worried that I might become collateral damage when god gets round to dealing with all the sinners on my street.

What sinning is going on down my street, you ask? Thanks to having my eyes opened by good Christians such as Comfort and Werner, I have realized that I am surrounded by depravity. First, a gay couple moved into my street about a dozen years ago. Presumably because we did not keep the neighborhood pure by driving them away with pitchforks, our street may have been perceived as gay-friendly and about two years ago a lesbian couple also moved in a few doors away.

They all pretend to be like normal people, cutting grass, weeding flowerbeds, sometimes sitting on their front step in warm weather, and waving and smiling to neighbors. But as the kind of sinners that god hates the most, even worse than murderers and child molesters and corporate executives who embezzle people of their life savings, they are putting the rest of us at risk just by living close to us. The gay couple are even brazen enough to fly a rainbow flag on their house, practically taunting god to deliver a thunderbolt!

I just hope that they haven’t taken the ultimate evil step of going to California and getting married because if they did that, we know that all the godly heterosexual marriages on our street are going to be undermined and fall apart.

And who knows what acts of depravity are going on in the homes of even my supposedly heterosexual neighbors? Oh sure, they put on a normal face by walking their dogs, playing catch with their kids on the lawn, organizing block parties, and the like. But one can only imagine the depraved orgies that are being held inside their homes once the curtains are drawn in the evening.

I am thinking that in order to be safe from the inevitable coming wrath of god, I may need to buy about 500 acres in some remote area of Montana or someplace and live right in the middle of the property, far away from any potential sinning neighbors. I figure that that should provide enough of a distance cushion so that whatever blunt instrument god chooses to use next for smiting sinners, like an earthquake or an asteroid collision with the Earth, I will be able to escape the side effects.

What god really needs to do is develop some precision-guided smiting weapons with built-in lasers, GPS trackers, and stuff. That would be cool. Then I could stay in my present home, sit on the front step, and watch the homes of my sinning neighbors be neatly and precisely destroyed.

Tim the Enchanter shows what such a carefully targeted smiting might look like.

Maybe god could make this into an annual event, replacing Fourth of July fireworks.

The difficulty of predicting the future

Science fiction writers have it tough. Although it is fun to predict what the world will look like in the future, the track record of success of past works is not great. (A caveat on what follows: I cannot really call myself a science-fiction fan, having read only a scattered sample of this vast genre, so I am expressing views based on a very limited awareness. Those who have read most of this genre may well disagree with my conclusions.)

Whether the future that is envisaged is dark (as in the films Blade Runner or Colossus: The Forbin Project) or somewhat optimistic (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the book Rendezvous with Rama), much of the predictions seemed to be focused on architecture, modes of transport, and video communication.

There seemed to be a consensus that the most dramatic changes would lie in our cities, featuring either exotic skyscrapers and clean, open spaces between, or dark visions of crowded, decaying dystopias. Transport is also a big focus. Flying high-speed cars or people movers or other forms of personalized transport seem to be a given. Space travel was assumed to be commonplace. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, travel in space was seen as almost routine as plane travel is now, with comfortable and spacious reclining seats for passengers and flight attendants serving meals, which is kind of ironic now that air travel is becoming cramped and food is a thing of the past, except on international flights.

As for advances in communication, the focus was on ubiquitous two-way video with a few exotic features like holograms thrown in.

Those predictions have not held up well. What we see is that the cities of today are not that dramatically different from those of fifty years ago and transport has not changed much either. There have been improvements no doubt, but no real breakthroughs.

What most writers failed to predict was the advent of the microchip and the resulting miniaturization of computers and other devices that allowed for new technologies, and the arrival of the internet, which has resulted in the highly diversified communication mechanisms that we now have.

But I think it is a mistake in evaluating science fiction literature to focus on the gee-whiz details of possible technological advances. The better and more lasting science fiction is that which focuses more on how human beings meet the new challenges that confront them.

In the science fiction that interests me, the author tries to deal with how people’s views and behaviors might change as a consequence of increased sophistication in science and technology. In particular, how human society might reorganize itself in the future. Arthur C. Clarke seems to envisage a future in which racist and sexist attitudes largely disappear, marriage is a limited-term contract, and people have abandoned religion and belief in god.

One interesting question is how people might react to the sudden realization that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, that more advanced civilizations exist, and that we have got in contact with them. Most of us simply do not consider this possibility or give it much thought. Try to imagine how we might react to the sudden announcement of contact with aliens. Would it be greeted with fear? Despair? For me, personally, the prime reaction would be excitement and hope. What new knowledge would this alien civilization bring and how would that change our views of everything?

While the fearful might worry about the harmful intentions of the aliens, it seems unlikely to me that an alien power would want to destroy us since we are so weak and no threat to them.

In Childhood’s End, the initial shock and fear at the sudden appearance of a fleet of alien spaceships hovering over all major cities is replaced with resignation and submission when humans realize that they are being overseen by a vastly more powerful and sophisticated alien civilization whose intentions, fortunately, seem benign. The overlords quickly put an end to war and with the elimination of all the waste that it entails, humans find that they can produce enough food for themselves, that crime and violence disappears, and work requirements become so minimal that people only do the jobs they like. While all this seems like a good thing, Clarke suggests that without the challenges that adversity brings, the human drive to produce new science or works of art can become atrophied and people could become bored and lose their drive.

Clarke sees a future in which the arrival of aliens who are obviously highly advanced in science and scientific thinking and technology results in an end to beliefs in god and religion, which then become seen as quaint superstitions on a par with the way we view astrology and witchcraft now. I think that this is plausible. Most people’s concept of god is very parochial, highly dependent on the uniqueness of Earth and humans. Finding that other advanced and powerful civilizations exist that have never heard of Yahweh, Jesus, or Muhammad, would likely make traditional religions obsolete. Of course, those who yearn for a father figure to look after them (which is what god is, when you think about it) might transfer their worshipful attitude to the aliens.

POST SCRIPT: John Yoo, torture accommodator

If you were a constitutional scholar and had been deeply involved in analyses about what the limits of interrogation were, you would think it would not be difficult to answer the question “Could the president order a suspect buried alive?”

And yet John Yoo, now professor of law at Berkeley after serving as legal advisor in the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel, and author of the infamous torture memo, seems to find it very hard to do so.

People like Yoo are despicable, serving as enablers of the worst abuses of human rights and basic civilized behavior committed by this administration.

A mini-Clarke festival

In addition to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey recently, I also indulged in a personal mini-Arthur C. Clarke festival, re-reading his novels Childhood’s End and Rendezvous with Rama, and reading for the first time his short story The Sentinel that contains as its central idea a key plot element that reappeared in 2001.

One of the interesting things about Clarke’s books is how for him, it is the science that is the most interesting element. That, and his vision of what future society will be like, are what moves his stories along. He tends to eschew traditional storytelling devices such as love, intrigue, violence, and all the other strong emotional factors. His stories focus less on fleshing out the characters and more on how normal human beings might react when they encounter an astounding new piece of information, such as making contact with intelligent life from elsewhere in space.

To the extent that one can discern an author’s views from his books, Clarke sees a future in which racial prejudice has disappeared. His books contain a diversity of characters and it is taken for granted that these people take leadership roles in politics and science. In the case of gender, though, although women do play important roles, they do not seem to have reached full equality with men.

This was one feature in the film 2001 that did not ring true, where all the main characters were exclusively white men. That did not seem like Clarke’s vision of the future and may have been more reflective of Kubrick’s or the studio’s attitudes of that time.

Marriage in the future is also seen by Clarke as a series of time-limited contracts and people can sign these contracts with more than one partner at a time.

In Childhood’s End Clarke clearly sees war and conflict as infantile disorders, a human frailty that we are not be able to overcome on our own. It ends only with the arrival of superior aliens who, acting as overlords of the planet Earth, put a stop to it.

The aliens, although they allow the killing of animals for food, also put an end to wanton cruelty to animals. How that is done is interesting. Rather than the way we would do things, by issuing an edict or law against animal cruelty and punishing offenders, the aliens, for example, monitor a bullfight and whenever the bull is wounded, the alien spaceship hovering overhead uses its advanced technology to immediately inflict identical pain on all the spectators so that they experience the same sensation as the wounded animal. A few such demonstrations quickly put an end to the inhumane treatment of all animals.

In re-reading Childhood’s End I realized (once again) how unreliable our memories are. Initially, the aliens do not reveal their appearance to humans, creating some speculation as to what they might look like. There is a very moving scene in which the aliens finally show themselves and that is the one vivid scene that stood out in my mind from the original reading over thirty years ago. I had remembered it as the climactic scene at the end of the novel. I was surprised to discover that it actually occurs about a third into the book. That scene was so vivid that it had erased everything that came after, even though the events that follow raise some interesting questions that I will discuss in the next post.

Just as I finished the book, I mentioned that I was reading it to a friend who had also read the book a long time ago and he too, without any prompting from me, immediately mentioned the same scene was as convinced as I that it came at the end. This may be a pure coincidence but also shows how unreliable our memories are and how our brains rearrange events to create new stories that conform to our own personal narrative preferences, using the most vivid memories as anchors.

Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained argues that our memories, and even the sense of who we are as individuals, are like drafts of screenplays that are constantly being rewritten, with the drafts are appearing and disappearing in our minds. Which one takes hold at any given time can change.

I was also interested on re-reading Childhood’s End to see that Clarke describes in some detail a tsunami, where the first wave is followed by a deep retreat of the sea that draws curious onlookers onto to the newly revealed beaches, intrigued by this strange behavior, only to get destroyed by the massive second wave that suddenly hits. Given that Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life where exactly that scenario played out in 2004, it is a sad that more people had not read his book and thus been aware of the danger signs of a tsunami and fled away from the beaches as soon as they saw the sea withdraw.

POST SCRIPT: The danger of using the auto-correct utility

This is hilarious.