On suicide

One of the oddest arguments made to atheists is that if they do not believe that the universe has a meaning, then they need to explain why they don’t immediately commit suicide. Usually I can understand the arguments of religious people even if I don’t agree with them but this one truly baffles me. It strikes me as a weird idea that simply because we and the universe are not part of a grand cosmic plan, our lives are not worth living. This argument is often presented along with Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus because Camus poses this issue: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Really? They fundamental question of philosophy is whether one should commit suicide? Come on, Albert, surely you jest. Frankly, I think very few people, except perhaps a few philosophers and the clinically depressed, get up each morning wondering whether life is worth living and entertain thoughts about ending it all. Most people, even under the bleakest of conditions, seem to want to live, even if they cannot articulate why, and whether or not they are religious. The desire to live is just taken for granted. In fact, there are good evolutionary reasons why we seem to have an innate will to live that has nothing to do with philosophy or the existence of meaning. Organisms that have a will to live and an aversion to death or suicide have a selection advantage over those that easily give up, and the latter trait would have been selected against and disappeared a long time ago in our evolutionary history.

I think this suicide argument represents a good example of projection, imputing to others what you yourself think or fear. An externally imposed meaning given by god seems to be so important to some religious people (and philosophers) that they think life would be not worth living without one. Since atheists do not believe that god exists to give the universe meaning, religious people think that we must be suffering from existential despair. It is perhaps from this premise that atheists are sometimes asked why they don’t commit suicide. That is the best reason I can come up with for this baffling argument.

But that argument is false. Atheists accept that this is the one and only life we have. We know that we are here because of both chance and the many, many contingent events that occurred in history. If any one of the vast numbers of my ancestors had not chanced to meet and mate with another particular ancestor, I would not be here. There is nothing inevitable about any of our existences. However difficult our personal situation may be (and for far too many people today life is a grim struggle for survival), we are simply fortunate to be alive at all. Why would atheists, who of all people understand particularly well how contingent our lives are, want to prematurely end it?

In fact, it is religious people who should be more tempted by suicide since they are the ones who disparage this Earthly life in comparison to the wonderful heavenly life they imagine having after they die. Since life after death is highly valued and praised in many religions, premature death should be considered a good thing by believers. They are the ones who should welcome death instead of avoiding it. This is why martyrdom is used as a motivating force to induce people to commit deadly attacks against others without regard to their own well-being. The belief that one will be richly rewarded in heaven for your acts can overcome one’s natural instinct for self-preservation.

Of course, martyrdom is not quite the same as suicide. The former implies that one dies in pursuit of some goal that is deemed to be noble, though in the eyes of the world it may just be a murderous act. Suicide does not require such a purpose. But for the purposes of this discussion as to whether nonbelievers should be more suicidal, the distinction does not matter.

Fortunately for the rest of us, it looks like very few religious people seem to genuinely believe that stuff about life in heaven being so much better than life here and now, and seem to value this life as much as atheists do, thus greatly limiting the pool of would-be suicide assassins.

Next: What does the Bible say about suicide?

POST SCRIPT: Technology to the rescue

So you and your band mates are ready to belt out Sweet Georgia Brown but don’t have a percussionist. What to do? Not a problem that an old tractor and Swedish ingenuity cannot solve.

If you’d like to hear more tractor music, here’s your chance.

The question of meaning

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The question of whether there is meaning in the universe is trickier to deal with than the question of the existence of god since meaning is not anything tangible. Since it is usually associated with a god’s plan, the existence of god is a more basic question and eliminating god usually eliminates an externally imposed meaning. But some try to establish the existence of god backwards by arguing that we can infer meaning from the way that the universe is structured and therefore there must be an entity that created this meaning. The fine-tuning and anthropic principle arguments are attempts at this backwards attempt to argue for god’s existence.

What is becoming increasingly clear from all the research in cosmology and biology is that the universe has all the indications that it has no underlying purpose or design or meaning but is evolving according to natural laws in which chance and contingency also plays a role, just as it does for the evolution of life. The universe just is and we just are. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it becomes pointless”, later clarifying his words by saying, “I did not mean that science teaches us that the universe is pointless, but rather that the universe itself suggests no point” (quoted in Has Science Found God? by Victor Stenger, p. 333). Richard Dawkins’s conclusion is that “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Scientific American, November 1995, p. 85) Some religious people have seized upon Dawkins’s words (which were purely an inference based on empirical observations on the nature of the universe) to suggest that he is some kind of depressed nihilist, when all the evidence suggests that Dawkins really enjoys life. What they are doing is projecting on to him their own fears about what the lack of an externally imposed meaning would mean to them.

All the evidence points to the conclusion that the universe and life do not exhibit any sign that everything is part of any grand plan. Rather than bemoan this fact, we have to come to terms with it and not indulge in pointless wishful thinking, trying to will into existence that which is not. Otherwise we will be like Peter Pan, the title character in J. M. Barrie’s classic children’s story, urging children to clap to show they believe in fairies in order to save the life of Tinker Bell. Life is not a fairy tale. Wishing and hoping and praying cannot bring into existence what is not there.

The appeal of a cosmic plan as a way to give one’s life meaning eludes me. What would such a plan imply, exactly? Does it mean that my life has been mapped out already, that one is merely a puppet manipulated by hidden strings, just going through the motions of life? Religious people counter this by arguing that god has given us free will but it is hard to reconcile that with a pre-existing plan. If I have genuine free will, why can’t I mess up god’s plan by doing something that was not part of the plan?

The question of whether each one of us thinks that our lives have meaning is a distinct one from whether the universe provides us with that meaning. Atheists think that the universe by itself does not provide us with meaning but it does not follow that they think that life is not worth living or that their own lives are pointless. As James Watson, co-discover with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, said in response to the question of what he thought we are put in this world for, “Well I don’t think we’re for anything. We’re just products of evolution. You can say, “Gee, your life must be pretty bleak if you don’t think there’s a purpose.” But I’m anticipating having a good lunch.” (The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, p. 100.)

Watson’s response that the anticipation of lunch gives his life purpose might be flip but it is true. There are plenty of things that we look forward to and are worth living for. Whatever our lot in life, we get pleasure from many things: the company of our family and friends, food, books, nature, and all the other things that we look forward to experiencing. The list of things which one can look forward to is endless. I for one eagerly anticipate learning new things and science is always opening up new frontiers of knowledge. There are new telescopes being built and satellites being put into orbit and new experiments being done. I am hoping that I will live long enough to learn at least some of what they discover. I also look forward to positive political changes such as the reduction of was and global poverty and disease and greater access to health care and education.

Atheists know that we have to create our own plan, for ourselves and, in conjunction with others, for the world. People, working together, can create a better world for all or choose to destroy it. Our fate is in our hands. If the goal of trying to create a better world does not inspire you and give your life meaning, then I doubt that religion will do any better. In fact, as I will argue in the next post, the absence of some external cosmically imposed meaning, rather than being depressing, is extraordinarily life affirming and exhilarating.

POST SCRIPT: How to attract more young people to church

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'God Smacked
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

I predict that it is only a matter of time before churches introduce scantily-clad cheerleaders to further liven things up.

The vanishing Deep Mysteries

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the face of science advancing its frontiers of knowledge, religious believers have had difficulty clinging on to the idea that there are still Deep Mysteries for which the only solution is god. The two most recent favorites are the origin of our universe and the very beginning of life. In the series of posts on the Big Bang, we have seen that when it comes to the origins of our universe, while we have by no means answered all the questions fully, it is clear that there is nothing about it that causes scientists to throw up their hands in bafflement and proclaim that some mysterious supernatural processes are at work. There already exist perfectly natural alternatives to divine creation.

The theory of evolution by natural selection does for life what the Big Bang theory does for the universe. It explains how, once the first simple self-replicating molecule came into being, it could grow in complexity until it produced the diversity of life we see all around us. It provides a natural law-like explanation for how everything came about.

Some people cling to the hope that the emergence of the very first life form is a Deep Mystery. But at this very moment, scientists are also working on how that first self-replicating molecule was created. This question is also no longer a mystery. It has become a puzzle in chemistry for which some of the solution pieces have already been found. In his 2005 book Genesis: The scientific quest for life’s origins, Robert M. Hazen discusses the progress that has been made in this area.

So in both cases, starting with simplicity, we are well on the way to explaining how complexity in life and the universe has come about.

What becomes patently clear when we look at how the universe evolved according to the Big Bang and how life on Earth evolved according to evolution is that it all happened due to a mixture of chance and law-like behavior. In other words, there is no evidence that there was some grand underlying plan. We humans are now here but there is no reason to think that we were destined to appear in our present form.

Other alleged Deep Mysteries, such as the mind, consciousness, and morality have also long since ceased to be mysteries and instead have become puzzles for the various scientific fields on which they impinge, such as cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Scientists are working on and making progress in all these areas. (For further reading on these topics, see Moral Minds by Marc Hauser and Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett.) Although there is still a long way to go to answer the more difficult questions in those areas, just as in the case of the origins of the universe and life there seems to be no need to invoke any explanation that involves non-physical matter or supernatural agencies to understand these phenomena.

I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that science has answered all the important questions. Far from it. What I am saying is that scientific progress has shifted all these questions from their former status of Deep Mysteries to their new status of scientific puzzles for which we have some leads on how to investigate them. If scientific history is any guide, once a mystery has become a puzzle, it is only a matter of time before it is solved.

The increasing comprehensibility of the universe and the steady elimination of Deep Mysteries make some people acutely uncomfortable. This sense of unease, though not limited only to religious people, seems to fill religious people with such concern that they simply dismiss the possibility of total comprehensibility out of hand because it implies that this world is all there is, that there is no externally provided meaning to their lives. They have the feeling that the universe must have a purpose and plan developed by god.

In support of this position, they adopt a circular logic: They think that without a plan to give their lives meaning, there is no point to living. Since they want to live, there must be a plan and hence god must exist. And since god exists, there must be a plan because if god created the universe, why would he go to all the trouble of doing that without a plan?

Before I address the reasons why life is still worth living even in the absence of a god, I must address this curious argument and where it breaks down.

The universe does not owe us anything at all, let alone meaning. It may or may not have a meaning but the fact that some people need some external meaning for their lives does not imply that one exists, any more than the fact that some people really, really want to believe in god because of some deep emotional need means that god must exist. Whether god exists is an empirical question that one has to infer from evidence based on observation and experiment. The answer is not a given and cannot be assumed a priori, just as we cannot assume that the universe is flat simply because we may want it to be. We need data to answer empirical questions. And there is no data to support the idea that god exists.

Next: The question of meaning.

POST SCRIPT: The New War Between Science and Religion

My article with the above title has just appeared in the online edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education and should appear in the May 16, 2010 print edition.

Religion as drama

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In the previous post, I criticized an essay by theologian David B. Hart who took the new/unapologetic atheists to task for not being as sophisticated as the grand old philosophers like Nietzsche, saying that we were attacking low-level straw gods and not engaging at the highest level of philosophical sophistication. But when the dust settles, what does Hart actually believe? As is usually the case with sophisticated theologians, this turns out to be extraordinarily hard to pin down, but what we can say is that what they believe in is nothing that the average religious believer would recognize as god.
[Read more…]

When theology infiltrates philosophy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

It is clear that the sustained attacks on religion by the new/unapologetic atheists are having an effect, with apologists scrambling to find ways to respond. One tack they take is to not engage directly with the arguments but simply to disparage them by saying that the arguments of the new/unapologetic atheists are not new, that they were made a long time ago. This is correct. One can find strong criticisms of religious beliefs going back thousands of years and what we atheists say nowadays is not fundamentally different, because there have been no new arguments in favor of god either. What is new about the new atheists is the emphasis.
[Read more…]

In praise of blasphemy

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I have been highlighting the absurd overreactions of religious people to what they perceive as lack of proper deference to their sensibilities. To them I say that they should learn to deal with it the way all the rest of us have to deal with others who exercise their rights of free speech to say things that we strongly disagree with. If religious people are offended by any TV show or song or book or film, they should simply not watch or listen or read. They, and other religious groups, have absolutely no right to try and prevent others from saying what they want to about religion. There should be no restrictions on speech in the public sphere, other than statements that create a clear and present danger.

Author Philip Pullman had the perfect response to people who get offended. He has just published a novel that gives an alternative account of how the Jesus legend arose. In his version of the story, Mary actually gave birth to twins: Jesus, who was a good man who initially thought he was the son of god but towards the end of his life realized that he was not and that there was probably no god either; and Christ, a weak and shallow person who, along with a mysterious stranger, orchestrated the events that led to the legend of Jesus that Christians now believe. The title of the book is The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. (You can read a review of the book here.)

At a reading and book signing, someone complained about how the title was offensive to Christians, saying “Now Mr. Pullman, the title of the novel seems to an ordinary Christian to be offensive. To call the son of god a scoundrel is an awful thing to say.”

Pullman’s reply is excellent. Watch:

For those who cannot watch or would like to know the exact words used by Pullman, I have transcribed it:

“Yes, it was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it, they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.”

The private sphere can have expectations of certain norms of speech and behavior because in such situations it is often difficult for people to leave or avoid hearing or seeing things without creating awkwardness and drawing attention to oneself. It would be rude, for example, to invite someone into our homes and make fun of their beliefs. And most of the time people conform to such unspoken norms and things move along smoothly. But at the same time, those same norms should not be used to shut down discussions of legitimate questions just because people dislike them. The problem arises when people either want to restrict speech in the public sphere or do not make the distinction between the public and private sphere and apply the norms of behavior in one sphere to the other.

The absurd sensitivities of religious people need to be combated because undue respect for their beliefs leads to them doing the most appalling things in the name of protecting the honor of their religion and god. The problem is that once you concede that religious beliefs have any kind of preferred status, you immediately open the door to people thinking that they can decide what other people can say or do concerning their beliefs. For example, in Poland simply offending someone’s religious sensibilities can get you fined and even imprisoned. A pop star who merely said that she found it far easier to believe in dinosaurs than the Bible, adding “it is hard to believe in something written by people who drank too much wine and smoked herbal cigarettes” has so offended the Catholic Church that she is now facing two years in prison.

This is why widespread blasphemy is good and even necessary. It serves to remind religious people that religion has take its lumps just like any other beliefs. The more we tiptoe around religious beliefs, the more we encourage a sense of entitlement among religious people.


Tim Minchin, whose terrific beat poem Storm (scroll down) making fun of new-age anti-science blather went viral, has a new song aimed at the pope and the Catholic Church.

Be warned that he uses strong language to make a point about the absurdity of people who seem to get more offended by mere words than by the terrible acts committed by priests and the cover-up of those acts by the church hierarchy. The tune is so catchy that you may find yourself singing it.

If people are offended by the song and video and want to do something about it, I suggest that they go back and read Phillip Pullman’s words above as to their options.

Suffer little children

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I have no problem with religious people wearing funny clothes and taking part in funny rituals and practicing all kinds of funny customs in the private sphere. It’s a free world (at least parts of it) and people have a right to practice their religion in any way that they see fit, and what consenting adults do is none of my business, though I fully reserve the right to be amused by such things and to point out the absurdities. Just as they have the right to practice their religion, others have the right to be make fun of them for doing so. But what is absolutely unconscionable is when these people impose their beliefs (religious or otherwise) on children.

Take for example, the practice of circumcision in Judaism and Islam. This strikes me as weird and indefensible. There has been an understandable outcry against the practice of female circumcision (dropping the euphemism and calling it by the more accurate term ‘female genital mutilation’) but it surprises me that there has been nothing similar against male circumcision. Why isn’t it called male genital mutilation? If adults want to circumcise themselves they should be allowed do so, just as we allow body piercing and tattoos and the like. But subjecting an infant to such things is simply wrong and it is only because it is a practice that is protected by long standing religious tradition that we do not say anything. Imagine if there had been no circumcision at all and some group came along today and said that they wanted to cut off the foreskin of their newborn male infants. Child protection agencies would be on them in a flash and their children would likely be taken away to protect them from potential abuse. But because it is done under the name of religions that have been around for a long time, it is given a pass.

It is like tattoos. We do not prohibit the practice of adults getting tattoos. But what if a new religion was started that required tattoos as a mark of faith and new born babies were given tattoos as a symbolic gesture of their parents’ commitment to having the child grow up in that religion? Would we, or should we, allow the practice? Shouldn’t the government step in and protect the rights of the most defenseless members of its community?

To me the issue is one of protecting the bodily integrity of a child that cannot give informed consent to mutilation. In Sri Lankan and other societies, female infants have their ears pierced and earrings inserted soon after birth and this practice is considered quite harmless and acceptable. But I refused to let this be done to my own daughters when they were infants (to the surprise of relatives who wondered why I was opposing a long-standing and unquestioned tradition) because I felt that since this was their body, this was a decision that they should make for themselves when they reached an age when they could make an informed choice. (When they were older, one of my daughters chose to have her ears pierced and the other declined.)

It is bad enough that religious people indoctrinate children’s minds with foolish ideas when they are at an impressionable age so that they find it hard to let go when they become adults. But some people go to such an extreme that they are willing to put the lives and health of children in danger. The number of such tragic cases is overwhelming and reading about them breaks your heart.

For example, we have the case of a child who died after receiving only homeopathic treatment. Another Wisconsin girl died because her father prayed for her instead of taking her to a doctor for a form of diabetes that could have been easily treated. Another boy died of a ruptured appendix while his parents prayed. In another case, children starved because their mother, who did not try to get a job or money in any way, said that they had to wait for god to provide. (This idea that god will take care of things resulted in the death of a man who injured his knee but could not afford to get it treated because he had no health insurance. So he simply sat in his recliner and prayed for healing for eight months.)

A member of a Christian religious cult starved her child to death on the instructions of her cult leader who claimed the child was a demon because he did not say ‘amen’ after meals. Prosecutors struck a deal with the mother in which she pleaded guilty and received a 20-year sentence but it will be reviewed if the child is resurrected from the dead. One hopes the prosecutors were only humoring the obviously deranged mother in order to get a guilty plea and do not really believe that there is any chance that the child will come back from the dead. The cult leader and two other members were found guilty of second-degree murder and child abuse and can face up to 60 years in jail at their sentencing in May.

A Haredi woman in Israel was arrested because she was starving her child and the members of her religious community rose up in protest and got her released.

There were apparently moves to cover Christian Science prayer treatments in the health care bill but fortunately it seems to have been stripped from the final bill that was signed into law.

The trouble with religion is that it encourages people to think that (1) their god is all-powerful and (2) that he will take care of those who faithfully worship him. Should we be surprised that some people (especially the more devout believers) take this message seriously and think that god will solve all their problems? One should not judge such people too harshly, though their acts are undoubtedly criminally stupid and they should be prosecuted in order to deter others from following their example. They are simply ignorant and gullible.

The people who are really culpable are the religious leaders and educated and sophisticated religious people who know better. They should be denouncing the idea that god will heal people. They know that god is not going to heal their own children and know enough to take advantage of modern science and medicine for themselves and their families when the need arises. But while not believing it themselves, they cynically endorse and propagate this message of a loving god who will look after the physical needs of his followers.

It is at the feet of these ‘moderate’ religionists that the ultimate blame for the suffering and deaths of these children should be placed.

POST SCRIPT: Children’s guide to religion

The dangerous mix of politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I am not one who reveres the ‘founding fathers’ of America, the architects of its independence. They were all-too-human and had their faults, such as their tolerance of slavery, their denial of equal rights to women, and their desire to preserve the privileges and property rights of the well-to-do landowning classes. But even with those caveats, one has to gratefully acknowledge that the constitution they created, despite its serious flaws, was way ahead of its time in its incorporation of ideas that address the question of how to create a functioning republican democracy and balance the needs of free people with an orderly government. And the Bill of Rights surely must rank as the jewel in that crown.
[Read more…]

Tying yourself in knots to please god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I was at a conference recently and during one session a sign-up sheet was passed around. When it came to my row, the woman seated next to me gave me her business card and asked me to fill in her name and information on the sheet. I noted her long skirt and the fact that it was a Saturday and realized that she must be an observant Jew and that it was prohibited for her to ‘work’ on such a day and writing was presumably deemed to be work, something she confirmed to me later when we chatted at the end of the proceedings. I did as she requested, all the while silently marveling that a highly educated person would voluntarily conform to such absurd rules by an obviously petty god who has way too much time on his hands if he worries about things like this.

All religions expect their devoted followers to do all manner of silly things in order to show their devotion to a god who seems to care about the most petty things. But amongst the more populous religions, Judaism surely takes the lead in the knots that it can persuade its most loyal believers to tie themselves into. Judaism has more than its fair share of religious rituals that can make an outsider wonder how any rational person can think that their god wants them to submit themselves to such contortions just to please him. The anachronistic restrictions on clothes, the long hair and beards, the robes and head coverings, the incredibly complicated food rules, the prayer rituals with all that bobbing and weaving, seem to me to be bizarre. The strangeness of the rituals can cause problems, as in the case of a scare that resulted in a plane having to make an emergency landing because of fears generated when someone started practicing a complicated Jewish prayer ritual with boxes tied to his head and arm that seemed to the other passengers and crew as being inexplicable and, in these days of fear of terror, alarming.

It makes me wonder who thought up all these strange things and why. Perhaps making people look very different and do ridiculous things enhances group cohesion and enables the group members to distinguish and separate themselves from others, an important feature when you are a new and small religion trying to create a separate identity. After some time has passed and the religion is established, the need to be so overtly distinct disappears but the rules persist, leading to all manner of absurdities as the passage of time makes old rules seem increasingly nonsensical.

Attempts to reconcile behaviors prescribed in ancient religious texts with life in modern societies eventually lead to absurdities like kosher telephones (scroll down) and ‘certified Sabbath mode’ ovens.

There was also a recent controversy over ‘Shabbat elevators’ that operate in high-rise buildings occupied by observant Jews. Apparently, pushing an elevator button, like writing, is proscribed on the Sabbath. God forbid that on a hot Saturday afternoon people should decide to not take the stairs to their tenth floor apartment. God would be so mad at such an act of disrespect.

But even many religious people do not find the idea of climbing the steps of their high-rise appealing. So one set of rabbis approved of a solution where an elevator would keep running on a permanent loop, going express all the way to the top and then stopping at each floor on the way down. Thus observant people would not have to actually do anything other than walk in and out of the elevator when the doors opened at the appropriate floor. This might require a long round trip if, for example, if you wanted to go from the first floor to the third floor, but that was the price one paid for not offending your god, who seems to really care about such trivialities and keeps a close watch on people to make sure they don’t break the rules.

But, alas, another set of killjoy rabbis said that the first set of rabbis was wrong and that to use these elevators is a “severely prohibited” desecration of the Sabbath. No doubt a resolution will eventually be reached on the proper use of elevators after careful poring over the wording in documents that were written long before the discovery of electricity.

One man who has devoted his life to studying questions of halacha, or Jewish law and tradition, is Rabbi Yitzhak Levy Halperin, founder of the Institute for Science and Halacha. His organization provides consulting services and guidance on the installation of elevators and other systems in hotels, hospitals and other buildings.

Contrary to what his critics say, Halperin insists he is not in the business of finding ways for Jews to duck their Sabbath obligations. But he firmly believes that the Torah’s rules, as well as its lessons, can be applied in any age provided that Talmudic scholars take the trouble to delve deeply into the technological workings of each and every machine or gadget in question. (my italics)

For those interested in what those solutions are — and they are numbingly complex — the institute has published an entire book on the subject, replete with engineering explanations and diagrams.

I am certain that a solution to the elevator problem will be found and will be one that allows people to take advantage of this modern convenience, since religions seem to always find ways to accommodate the material needs of their more affluent members. (The cynic in me notes the curious coincidence that Halperin just happens to run a consulting business to advise clients on such highly esoteric doctrinal issues.)

But can you believe that people actually spend vast amounts of time and intellectual effort on things like this? And that their verdicts and the resulting rules are taken seriously and followed by others? Religion has to be one of the biggest time wasters that one can imagine.

But it is not always merely time-wasting that is involved. Sometimes things can turn downright ugly and hateful as when a group of orthodox Jews surrounded a reporter and repeatedly spat on her simply because she was using a tape recorder on the Sabbath. As she reports, “I found myself herded against a brick wall as they kept on spitting – on my face, my hair, my clothes, my arms. It was like rain, coming at me from all directions – hitting my recorder, my bag, my shoes, even my glasses. Big gobs of spit landed on me like heavy raindrops. I could even smell it as it fell on my face. Somewhere behind me – I didn’t see him – a man on a stairway either kicked me in the head or knocked something heavy against me.”

The men who committed such a disgusting act probably did so on the basis of careful study of their religious texts. No doubt they think of themselves as virtuous and godly men, and went home smugly satisfied that they had defended the honor of their god, and that their even more godly rabbis patted them approvingly on their godly little heads.

This is what religion can make people do.

POST SCRIPT: The Internet: Where religions come to die

Until this video pointed it out, I had not fully appreciated the fact that even though atheists are a local minority, their commonality across the world makes them numerically larger than the members of all except one religion.

Religion and women

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Recently I attended a university function where several faculty members were being honored. One of them was a friend of mine and after I congratulated her by shaking her hand, we were just chatting of this and that when another one of the honorees (someone I had not met before) joined us. I congratulated him too and shook his hand. At this point my friend also congratulated him and held out her hand. He declined to shake hands with her saying that it was against his religion. He was wearing a yarmulke so presumably he belongs to a sect of Judaism that does not allow men to shake hands with (at least some) women. The rejection of the proffered hand resulted in a moment of brief embarrassment but my friend is very gracious and lowered her hand and continued the conversation with him. The man did not seem unduly disturbed, presumably because he does this to women often.

I have to say that I was annoyed by the whole incident even though I was not the one whose hand was rejected. What kind of religion requires someone to reject an offer of friendship simply because it comes from a woman? What kind of god would not forgive a gracious gesture by one of his followers to a fellow human being? Why would you even want to worship a god or follow a religion that forbids acts of politeness that harm no one? Even if you like your religious group and want to belong to it, why would you not use your own mind and reject those rules that are so obviously absurd and even offensive?

I know that orthodox Jews (and fundamentalist members of all religions) will say that I just don’t understand, that obeying god takes priority above all human social conventions and that their god has laid out pretty clearly what they are allowed to do, required to do, and forbidden to do, and that it is not the province of mere mortals to question god’s commandments or to pick and choose which rules to obey. To those people, I say simply that I do understand their reasons. I just reject them. I do not respect those people for their commitment to their faith. I think less of them because their blind allegiance to ancient books and their religious leaders takes precedence over how they treat the people around them.

I think that it is the singling out of women that bothers me. I would not have been as bothered if he refused to shake hands with everyone, including me. I know someone who has an obsessive-compulsive disorder about cleanliness, is always washing his hands, and refuses to shake hands with anyone because of the fear of germs. Most people know about this quirk and accommodate it. Those who encounter him for the first time are surprised when he declines to shake hands but when the situation is explained to them they tend to not be offended, recognizing that this behavior is the result of a kind of mental illness over which he has little control.

Similarly it is tolerable if there are cultural practices that apply uniformly to everyone, the way some societies bow in greeting rather than shake hands. But singling out individuals or groups of people whom one will not touch purely because they belong to some group that is deemed untouchable seems to me to be indefensible, but is tolerated as long as it is done in the name of religion.

The strange thing is that it is usually only misogyny that is tolerated these days, as long as it is done in the name of religion. Imagine if Judaism had a rule that said that believers should not shake hands with people of color, and that in mixed groups of people orthodox Jews shook hands with only white people. Such a blatantly racist rule would be met with such strong social disapproval nowadays that teams of high powered rabbinical scholars would have soon come up with a loophole in their religious texts to explain why that rule was a ‘misreading’ of their ancient texts and that deep scholarly study revealed that shaking hands with people of color was perfectly kosher. (For example, see the concerted efforts to undermine the Hindu caste system that treated the ‘lowest’ caste people as untouchable.) But sexist rules don’t seem to bother people that much.

I spoke with a couple of women after this incident and they recounted similar experiences of rejection. What was interesting (and disturbing) was that it was the women who felt momentarily ashamed by the incident, mortified that they had done something wrong by almost defiling the ‘purity’ of these religious men. This is rubbish. It is the men who reject the offered hand, not the women who offer it, who should feel ashamed that their religion makes them forego common courtesies. But such is the power of religion to sanctify that it makes the victims of such rudeness feel that they are the ones at fault. In this case, the man’s rejection of the woman’s hand, rather than being accompanied by a groveling apology (which might have made the act seem less rude) was actually brusque and unapologetic, which likely added to the women’s sense that they were the ones in the wrong, though that is manifestly not the case.

Religions can still be blatantly anti-woman and we are expected to accept it and shrug and act like it is no big deal. As long as such practices arise from old and powerful religions like Judaism or Catholicism or Islam, we are told we must ‘respect’ their right to treat women as second class or worse.

I am not suggesting that we should go out of our way to make people do things they don’t want to do. For example, if I find myself in a situation where I suspect the norms of social behavior are different from the ones I am accustomed to, I try to pick up clues as to appropriate behavior. I do not initiate an offer to shake hands with anyone if I suspect they belong to a group that disapproves of the practice. What I do is wait for them to make the first move and reciprocate accordingly. If they nod, I nod. If they bow, I bow. If they offer their hand, I shake it. But that is different from rejecting an offer of friendship initiated by someone else.

Let me make my point clear. People can avoid any groups of people they like for any reason. That is their right. But they have no right to expect that the rest of us approve of such actions. They are rude and they should realize that others think of them as rude. Religious people have no right to expect that society should be accepting of rude behavior simply because it is based on religious beliefs.

Acts that demean women do not become less so because they are done in the name of god.

POST SCRIPT: The one true god