So long, and thanks for all the kitsch

This will be my last post. I expect to be taken up to heaven shortly at 6:00 pm eastern time with all the other true believers.

rapture.jpegSome of you will be surprised that I will be among the select few, since I have been making the case for atheism and making fun of all religions, including Christianity, and thus would have seemed a sure bet for hell. It is time to reveal the truth. This was all a ruse on my part. I was deliberately trying to drive people away from Jesus because I was working as a double agent for the CIA (Christ Indoctrination Agency). Jesus wanted to weed out all those whose faith was weak enough that they could be swayed by atheist arguments. Jesus wanted only the truest of the true believers, those who are willing to completely abandon all evidence and reason and logic, and instead put their complete trust in the words in an old book of dubious origin and so he and Melvin and Harvey created this agency to carry out this task. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and most other atheists also work for the CIA and are in the top ranks of the organization, so you will have the seeming paradox that heaven is going to filled with people who were considered dyed-in-the-wool atheists on Earth. Life is full of these little ironies.

Some people say that 2% of the world’s population, or about 130 million, will be saved but they are wrong. There aren’t that many true Jesus lovers and heaven would not want to admit any riff-raff. We are a pretty exclusive community and only 144,000 people will be saved in the Rapture.

So I will soon be off to get my wings and harp and enjoy the delights of heaven, such as singing hosannas and hanging out with the Cherubim and Seraphim, whatever the hell they are, because the Rapture manual they gave all CIA agents doesn’t say. I am guessing that they are a comedy duo like Laurel and Hardy who perform their act between the hosanna sessions.

So goodbye and remember that the world actually ends on October 21. Until then you will experience five month of tribulation, which is not going to be a walk in the park. But cheer up. However bad the tribulation period is, remember that when it ends, it will be even worse in hell. And don’t forget to wear clean underwear for the underworld, ha, ha! (Just a little Rapture humor.)

God and the US constitution

There is a person named David Barton who has been pushing the idea that the US was founded as a Christian country and that the separation of church and state was not intended to be a guiding principle. He is widely quoted in evangelical circles as an authority on this topic and has been influential in setting guidelines for high school textbooks.

In early May, Jon Stewart invited him to The Daily Show which is where I first saw him. Barton struck me as a fast talking snake oil salesman who knows how to impress people with seemingly erudite knowledge and to my irritation managed to steamroll Stewart.

To his credit, Stewart realized that he had been snowed so last week he brought on a genuine constitutional historian, Richard Beeman of the University of Pennsylvania, author of the book Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, to set the record straight. (The book is on my list of things to read.)

You can see all the interviews.

David Barton part 1:

David Barton part 2:

Richard Beeman part 1:

Richard Beeman part 2:

Rapture update

Today’s Doonesbury cartoon continues his series on the Rapture

I also received this link from reader FuDaYi about people having fun with the Rapture with parties planned for the big day tomorrow. One person (an atheist, of course) is even offering pet care insurance for people who want to make sure that the pets that are left behind when their owners get taken to heaven will be looked after. This raises the serious theological question: Why don’t pets get to go to heaven? What kind of god would deny people the company of their beloved pets? I personally wouldn’t want to spend eternity without Baxter.

baxter.JPG

Not everyone is enjoying the publicity this event is garnering. “When we engage in this kind of wild speculation, it’s irresponsible,” said the Rev. Daniel Akin, president of the Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. “It can do damage to naive believers who can be easily caught up and it runs the risk of causing the church to receive sort of a black eye.”

Of course it does. The church deserves to get a black eye because they are the enablers of these people. His concern about ‘naïve believers’ being misled is hilarious since that group constitutes his entire base. If you encourage people to believe in nonsense, you shouldn’t complain if they believe in nonsense that is different from the nonsense that you believe in.

Probe into banks by New York Attorney General

The Attorney General of New York state has opened an investigation into the practice of mortgage loan packaging by the big banks and investment firms like Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs. It was these practices that led to the real estate bubble and subsequent collapse.

This is a hopeful sign since we cannot expect the Obama administration’s justice department to take any serious action since the White House has long been a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street.

Matt Taibbi, who has been relentless in driving this story forward, is cautiously hopeful that something meaningful might come out of this.

This investigation has the potential to be a Mother of All Nightmares situation for the banks for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the decision to go after the securitization process is a total prosecutorial bullseye. This is the ugly heart of the wide-scale fraud scheme of the bubble era.

The reason this is such a potentially deadly investigation for the banks is that they seemed to be so close to getting away scot free. There is another investigation into the banks’ mortgage abuses by the states’ Attorneys General, led by Iowa AG Tom Miller, that was rumored to be headed toward a settlement, despite the fact that nothing like a complete investigation has been done.

Such a desire to get some kind of deal done and sweep the mortgage mess under the rug once and for all seems almost universal among high-ranking politicians, and particularly in the Obama administration, which has acted throughout like it wants more than anything to simply get all of this over with and put in the past.

I am going to wait and see how this turns out. The oligarchy is going to close ranks and pull out all the stops to defend itself and preserve its privileges and get away with a plea deal that involves just a slap on the wrist and fine.

How religion warps thinking

The many widespread and massive evil acts that god commits in the Bible (the story of Joshua being one) should logically undercut any religious belief in such a god. But the desire to believe is so ingrained in some people that they are willing to abandon the logic and evidence that they use in other areas of their lives in order to maintain the things they were indoctrinated with as children.

The best defense against charges of an evil god would be to concede that the Bible is pretty much entirely fiction. This should be easy to do since the evidence against the historicity of almost everything in the Bible is so overwhelming that one has to suspend all critical faculties to retain any credence. But of course religious people cannot do that. Believers have to cling to the historicity of the Bible, at least in its basic storyline and the main events, because they have nothing else.

They try to do this even though, for example, no traces of the kingdoms and magnificent palaces of David and Solomon have been found, although excavations have unearthed evidence of older civilizations. One inscription that was discovered refers to ‘the house of David’ but does not provide any information about who he was. No serious scholar thinks that a mighty king David ruling a large area ever existed. The only debate is over whether the person described in the Bible existed at all or was a minor warlord.

The Bible is riddled with contradictions, large and small. For example, camels are all over the Old Testament as symbols of wealth and as beasts of burden and they cause serious problems of credibility. The story of Abraham, who supposedly lived around 2,000 BCE, has plenty of camels in it. But we know that camels were not domesticated until 1,000 BCE and were used as beasts of burden only after 800 BCE. Furthermore, many of the place names mentioned in the Old Testament did not exist until the 6th or 7th centuries BCE. All these facts strongly support the proposition that the Bible consists of stories that were created after around 600 BCE, based on folklore and myths, with the authors simply projecting back in time. (The state of knowledge is summarized in the book The Invention of the Jewish People by Shlomo Sand.)

The famous exodus story is another myth. According to Ussher’s Biblical chronology, this occurred around 1490 BCE. The story says that the Israelites had been in captivity in Egypt for generations and then dramatically escaped under the leadership of Moses. While modernist believers are willing to concede that the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea may not be historical, they think the basic story is true. But there are no records of such captivity and no archeological evidence whatsoever to support the idea of 600,000 warriors (which one can estimate to about 3 million people if one includes the families of the warriors) wandering about in the Sinai desert for forty years. Absolutely nothing has been excavated in that region to suggest that a large community ever lived there for any extended period of time.

When you tell religious people this, they are surprised because their priests never informed them, assuming that the priests even know this. When I recently told this to a Catholic priest, he suggested (like most modernist believers seeking to believe in the face of evidence that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods) that while the Bible is true in its basic historical facts, it may not be accurate in all its details and may have been exaggerated. He suggested that the actual number of people who left Egypt may have been small enough to explain the lack of evidence in the Sinai. The fact that he was willing to make up this excuse on the spot to counter evidence that he had not seemed to be aware of suggests how deep is the desire to retain belief in the Bible’s historicity. It also seemed odd that he would so easily concede that the numbers were made up but insist that the event itself must have happened. How low can the numbers go before they become meaningless? Would a single person walking across the Sinai constitute ‘the exodus’?

I was also a bit disturbed that he did not seem to know about the lack of evidence for the exodus, even though he was a Catholic priest and thus should have attended a decent seminary with faculty who should have known about this scholarship. It just shows how religions need to keep their followers, and even their leaders, in the dark about basic facts that science has unearthed about the Bible in order to maintain belief.

But even conceding the possibility that the exodus story numbers may have been much smaller than stated in the Bible does not take away from the basic implausibility of the story. Take a look at this map of the Egyptian empire in the 15th century BCE.

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Note that the Egyptian empire extended all the way beyond Canaan. It does not make any sense to say that the Israelites ‘escaped’ from Egypt and went via Sinai to Canaan because their entire journey from start to finish would have been within the Egyptian empire. The whole exodus story not only lacks any empirical support, it makes no sense either.

A 2008 two-hour NOVA program titled The Bible’s Buried Secrets discusses the origins of the Bible and the Israelites in the light of modern archeological evidence. While staying within the bounds of facts, the program’s creators seem to be very sympathetic to believers and stretch the meager evidence to try and make the Bible stories (at least beginning after 1000 BCE which is around the time that David supposedly reigned) seem at least slightly plausible. But even they cannot hide the fact that the evidence for almost everything is either slim or none.

The McGurk effect

Blog reader Henry sent me the link to this clip from the BBC program Horizon of what is known as the McGurk effect, that shows that when the brain receives two different inputs, one aural and one visual, the brain forces you to register just one. Lawrence Rosenblum of the University of California, Riverside explains this effect and demonstrates how in this particular case the visual overrides the sound.

If we cannot do such a simple act of multitasking, imagine how unlikely it is that we can do more complex and challenging multitasking.

The real lessons from the story of Joshua

The lack of historicity of the Bible is rampant. To take just one example, there is no evidence for the triumphalist story of Joshua leading the Israeli soldiers, just returned from their (also fictitious) captivity in Egypt, in one victory to another over the various towns in Canaan. The most famous battle is the one for Jericho. But archeological excavations reveal that far from being a big fortressed city whose walls fell under a military onslaught that was favored by their god, Jericho was an insignificant little town that was unwalled.

Religious believers naturally tend to be disturbed by new scientific findings that show that almost all the ‘history’ in the Bible is without foundation. But when it comes to the Joshua story they should be thankful that this story is not true because it reveals a god who is truly depraved, ordering the wholesale brutal genocide of an entire population. What the Israelites were asked to do by their god was to kill everyone and everything without exception, and they did so. “They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.” (Joshua 6:21) In other words, it was as complete an act of genocide as one can imagine, putting to shame the attempts at genocide by any modern counterpart.

Such stories, even if fictional, are not harmless. Because they are told to children as something glorious (and praised in song about even today), they serve to indoctrinate young children with the tribal mindset that atrocities are acceptable as long as they are done by ‘our’ side (by definition good) against ‘their’ side (evil). As researcher George Tamarin shockingly revealed, young Israeli school children approved of Joshua’s genocidal acts as reported in the Bible but when the identical story was told to them with the setting transformed to ancient China and the killers into an obscure warlord, they condemned it. The differential response of the children based on whether the killers belonged to their own tribe is no different from that of a supposedly sophisticated theologian like William Lane Craig who seems to find it easy to justify any evil action as long as it is done or commanded by his own particular god.

Here is a another website that tries to justify the genocide perpetrated by Joshua and his army.

Killing a person, while often wrong, is not wrong in all situations; for example, it can be justified if necessary for self-defense. That is, it’s not automatically wrong for God to issue an order to kill humans. Since the Israelites had good reason to believe in God’s moral perfection, omniscience and omnipotence, the best choice for them would be to trust that God had a better understanding than they of the situation itself and the moral rules governing it. The only way for them to be justified in not obeying God’s command would be if the command were inherently evil and impossible to justify (though it must be cautioned that humans with their imperfect understanding could incorrectly decide a command was inherently evil).

This passage is a good example of the kind of pretzel shapes logic gets twisted into when you try to justify the unjustifiable. (The irony is that this website is called Rational Christianity!) It says that even if a command from god seems manifestly evil, you should still do it because god is morally perfect and knows more than you and hence your own judgment is worthless. The author seems to realize that most people might find the relinquishing of all personal judgment too extreme because he/she then says that you can disobey a command only if it is “inherently evil and impossible to justify”, seeming to imply that your judgment is not entirely useless but can be used to decide whether to follow god’s command or not. But then he/she immediately undercuts that by saying that we are imperfect because we are mere mortals, unlike god, and thus have only an imperfect understanding, and thus we cannot be sure of our own judgment. So what should we do? Use our judgment and follow the order that we think is “inherently evil and impossible to justify” or not? Alas, the author does not say and, as religious apologists often do when faced with these irreconcilable contradictions, changes the subject. This is because there is no way to justify the evil acts that god commands in the Bible without sounding like a monster.

What is disturbing is that this is precisely the kind of reasoning (“God told me to do it and so it must be good and must be obeyed”) used by religious fanatics of all stripes down the ages when they commit atrocities. How can we say that they are wrong when their supposedly holy books are approving of the same kinds of reasoning?

In Mark Twin’s autobiography that has just been released, he recounts in his bitingly sarcastic style (see here and here) the massacre of 600 men, women, and children of the Moros tribe by US forces in 1906 in the Philippines. Reading this brought back to mind the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war (see here and here). Both these massacres were excused in the US because they were done by ‘our’ side. Imagine the reaction if the tables had been turned and 600 American men, women, and children were murdered by a foreign force.

The real lesson from the story of Joshua is that people are most dangerous, and can be most cruel, when they think they know the mind of god and believe that he is on their side.

The motives of the Templeton Foundation

The June 21, 2010 issue The Nation has a good article by Nathan Schneider titled God, Science and Philanthropy that looks at the work of this wealthy foundation that dangles generous grants and a cash prize every year that is larger than the Nobel prize that goes, as Richard Dawkins says, “usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.”

Along with providing support for politically right-wing organizations, the foundation’s goal seems to be to lure scientists to sign on to the idea that science and religion are compatible. Nobel prize winning chemist Harold Kroto is one of those fighting back against it and says of the foundation that “They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community.”