Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Problem With Islam

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (Exodus 20:5, NIV)

This is the scripture that Muslims use to justify their fatwas against people who make an image of Muhammad*. It would seem, from the effort I had to put into finding this, that even the average Muslim is not aware that there is even a scripture reference for their anger towards this “sin”. You may notice that this is not from the Qur’an, but rather from the Old Testament of the Bible, which is actually a part of the Muslim scripture (kinda… we’ll get to that in a moment).

The creators of South Park, Matt Parker and Trey Stone, made 2 attempts to exercise free speech in the face of this terrorism. Their first attempt was censored by Comedy Central, and their second attempt was even more so. In this second attempt, though, they made an excellent point – South Park depicted Muhammad in a Season 2 episode entitled “Super Best Friends”, but this was before 9/11/01, and therefore didn’t even spark the slightest bit of controversy at the time. And suddenly the Islamic holy scriptures were against such an act, even though they hadn’t changed one bit? Isn’t this rather silly, using scripture to justify what religious zealots suddenly want, regardless of what their religion actually believes?

As far as Islam goes, this cherry-picking of scripture is par for the course. As I mentioned, the Muslims “kinda” follow the Old Testament… they follow the first 5 books of the Old Testament, and if any part of it conflicts with the Qur’an, it is ignored and the Qur’an is followed. Muhammad himself was also well-known for adding to the scripture when it suited his earthly desires, such as his marriage to several women. Christians, too, ignore the Old Testament when it conflicts with the New, but this is denial rather than stated dogma – your average Muslim is well aware that his scriptures contradict each other, and believes that this hierarchy of scripture actually makes the contradictions disappear.

From an objective standpoint, it seems incredible that the Muslims would hold a book such as the Qur’an in such high regard, as it is taken to be from Muhammad… but it isn’t literally. Muslims are well-aware that Muhammad was illiterate, so a man named Abu Bakr actually sifted through the thousands of texts supposedly written by his followers to gather what is now known as the Qur’an. This is very similar to the story of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons… one cannot help but see this as a rather shady beginning.

Today, the overseas Muslims are viewed as terrorists by those of us in the states, but what they did to us isn’t nearly as bad as what they’ve done to themselves for centuries. Women in Muslim countries are still less than human. A woman who is raped may be stoned to death as an adulteress.  Your average woman is not even allowed the basic freedom to go for a walk, as they can in our free land. And women didn’t even gain the right to vote in Kuwait or Saudi Arabia until 2005.

This blog is generally not aimed at tearing down Islam, although it’s rather easy… I’ve listed several good reasons to pick a fight with this religion. But the main problem with Islam is the same as Christianity – they haven’t proven their religion in any way that could be considered scientific or rational. It’s easy to see how Muslims are deluding themselves with untrue scripture, believing in a fake god, and fighting logic with dogma. Your view on Islam is the same as mine, an atheistic stance that pities the poor fools for laboring under a false belief. But I see your religion in the same light, for the same reasons. If you’ve ever wondered how somebody can actually be an atheist, just consider what you feel when you think of Muslims.

-Supernova

*Also, they base this belief on Hadith. This would entail an entire blog of explanation, and I’d rather you read about it here if interested.

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Where Do Morals Come From?

It’s the billion-dollar question – where do atheists get their morality from? They don’t have a book to draw it from, so it must all be subjective and full of personal interpretation. I’ll fill you in on the objective view of morality, which should be enlightening – even most atheists have a hazy answer to this one.

It’s very hard to come up with a definition of this from the dictionary. Most definitions read “a code of conduct between what is right and wrong” without any further defining of right and wrong.  Wikipedia breaks it down even further, but still after reading everything they have to say on the subject, you will probably not walk away with a definition of human morality.

Sam Harris, writer of The End of Faith, provides the following definition: Morality is about human and animal well-being, a conduct that alleviates the suffering of others and/or provides happiness for others. This is why we don’t have a moral obligation towards rocks, he argues, because they can’t suffer or feel happiness. I feel this best sums it up, as it appears that we all judge actions by this same rationale – that is, until it conflicts with religion.

Many religions base morality on the writings of their holy scriptures. Although this is the accepted definition throughout much of the world, it isn’t an objective definition, as each religion bases it upon a different book (and the books don’t agree on this). Even religions can’t agree within themselves on statements of morality. Many American Muslims are against the actions of the 9-11 hijackers and believe their motives to be immoral, while many Muslims overseas find their actions to be of the highest caliber of morality.

From the view of Richard Dawkins, we tend to find cultural harmony on many points of morality, and this is known as Zeitgeist (or “spirit of the times”). Zeitgeist changes over time, and not everyone agrees with it, but it tends to shift towards the first definition I gave for morality – towards happiness for the greatest number of people.

The best example of objective morality is the question of slavery. The entire civilized world finds this to be wrong. It was commonplace for wealthy people to own slaves for thousands of years, and then we all gave it up for the most part (yes, sadly there are still millions of slaves in Southeast Asia). It’s a given that my readers find slavery to be immoral, and would not own slaves if given the opportunity because it’s so unethical. We can see the shift in Zeitgeist, as there weren’t even abolitionists objecting the practice of slavery until the century that it became illegal. In the modern day, no one fights for the rights of the wealthy to own slaves.

It’s easy to see how slavery causes pain, misery, and suffering. So why wasn’t anyone fighting to end this evil? Because discussions about objective morality are relatively new – we based morality on our holy books, and the bible clearly doesn’t forbid it (nor does the Qur’an).

So why don’t we still have slaves, as the bible’s view on this hasn’t changed even slightly? Why aren’t Christians fighting for the ultra-conservative view on this issue? Because they also get their morality from the cultural Zeitgeist. This is why they don’t believe in killing non-believers, murdering disobedient children, and putting to death anyone who works on the Sabbath. Of course, you may be right to state that these are in the old testament. So what? Jesus endorsed Old Testament law. So did the apostle Paul.

So why do Christians ignore laws now found silly (shellfish and pigs forbidden to eat) or outright barbaric (killing homosexuals)? Because they also follow the Zeitgeist, which is leading us towards real morality – an allowance for activities that bring us happiness, such as eating what we like, and away from hurting or murdering people for various sins.

It seems we all have an intrinsic view of right and wrong that most of us agree upon, even when we can’t directly define it. For instance, take this hypothetical situation: You are standing before 2 rooms. The room on your left contains 5 people, and the room on your right contains 1 person. A deadly gas is going to seep into the room on the left, killing all 5 people. There is a switch in front of you, and with a flick of the switch you can divert the gas to the room on the right, killing 1 person instead. Should you flip the switch?

A second situation: You are a hospital administrator. You have 5 patients that are all going to die soon because they have various unhealthy organs. You also have a man in the waiting room that has 5 healthy, compatible organs inside him. Should you kill the man and harvest his organs?

The answers are almost universal. Most people answer ‘yes’ to the first situation and ‘no’ to the second situation, even though they are almost identical (the lives of 5 people versus 1). Where do these value judgments come from? Science will answer these questions, I imagine, given enough time. We’re still in the infancy of neuroscience. Our religions cannot. I challenge anyone to find answers to these questions of morality in the bible or any holy book.

-Supernova


A Thought Experiment – Part 3 of 3

In this final chapter of the experiment, let’s review our progress. We’ve established Happy Place and Unhappy Place (comfort vs. terror after death), we’ve given our cult a sense of belonging, we’ve given them a god named FAKE, scriptures named FALSE, and ourselves for leadership and guidance. Now let’s exercise some damage control.

FAKE is exactly that – fake. We made him up out of thin air, so it’s no surprise that he isn’t going to live up to his end of the deal. Our followers will pray to him and he won’t respond, so we’ll tell them to look for his response in natural occurrences, intuition, and even in their inner monologue. Our followers will search for FAKE, so we’ll put him in outer space or into another dimension. They’ll want direction from FAKE, so we’ll tell them to look to our scripture.

Unfortunately, FALSE is also exactly that. So when people find discrepancies we’ll tell them that the problem is with them, not the book. If they dig hard enough, we’ll tell them that the book is not meant to be taken literally. If they feel that the commandments are just freedom-stealing drudgery, we’ll instruct them that these laws are there for our cult’s safety and long-term happiness. We’ll gather our followers weekly to re-indoctrinate them and give them reassurance that they made the right choice exchanging free will for a Happy Place that they’ve never seen.

But even these efforts aren’t foolproof. Since there are many cults, and they all want to steal our followers, they’ll be told by outsiders to question our cult. And they will. So how will we keep them in line?

So far, fear has kept them in line, and there’s no reason to give up on it. We can force people to follow us and our commands under penalty of death, but that only works if we control a government… we don’t hold that kind of power (yet). So we have to make it look like FAKE can kill people himself if they step out of line, through causes that already kill people such as natural disasters. We’ve already ascribed omnipotence to FAKE, so let’s say that earthquakes and hurricanes are his way to keeping people loyal to him and punishing them when they leave.

We’ll also tell our followers not to question, doubt, or test FAKE. After all, FAKE can’t pass a single test, so this is an event that should never be allowed to happen under any circumstance. And if someone does test FAKE, we’ll tell them that he doesn’t want to pass any tests since he already told them that he wasn’t planning to take one. After all, our followers want to believe in FAKE and Happy Place, so they’ll buy this easily.

Last (but certainly not least!), let’s stop referring to ourselves as a cult. We could call ourselves a religion, but even that causes our followers to draw parallels to other religions, ones that they believe are phony. Let’s just call ourselves The Truth, or The Way Things Are, or even Duh.

I hope this thought experiment has been educational. I hope you’ve seen what a cult does to preserve itself, and how any modern religion would closely resemble such a cult. Just don’t apply this education to your own personal FAKE, or he might doom you to Unhappy Place.

-Supernova


A Thought Experiment – Part 2 of 3

We’re in the process of making a hypothetical cult. We’ve figured out how to recruit people by scaring them with an eternity of punishment after death (Unhappy Place) and offering them an alternative of never-ending bliss instead (Happy Place). This is a tried and true method, but it’s still doomed to fail without a couple more crucial elements.

Our cult members are bound to doubt us. “It’s obvious that our leaders aren’t capable of building Happy Place,” they’ll cry. “How did they even discover this place? How do we know they didn’t just make it up?” These are valid concerns, which we’ll address by making some more stuff up. We need a Happy Place construction worker – a god – and a method of discovering this happy locale – a scripture.

In the interest of keeping this fun and hypothetical, let’s create the Fantastic All-Knowing Entity, or FAKE for short. We have to say FAKE is capable of building the Happy Place, but to make FAKE more admirable (for the sake of making him an object of worship) let’s say he can and did create everything*. To add to the sense of community, we’ll say that anyone can talk to FAKE. He is, after all, All-Knowing, so he can hear your thoughts for ease of communication.

Our followers may be sheep, but they’re not stupid. They know what communication sounds like, and when they discover that FAKE doesn’t talk back to us they’ll continue to question our discovery of Happy Place. For this purpose, we’ll write a holy book. Let’s call it the Fantastic, All-Learned Scripture Education, or FALSE.

Not only will FALSE explain what Happy Place is like and how to get there, but it will tell stories that put FAKE is a good light, give commandments to our followers (such as paying us or putting us in positions of power), and try to answer the multitude of questions that our followers wondered before coming to us (such as “Where did we come from?” “Why are we here?” “How should I make a check payable to our esteemed leaders?”)

Not everyone will love and appreciate the commandments we’re putting on them, but we’ll fix this by telling them they’ll get the approval of FAKE if they follow his demands. Not following the commandments will exclude them from our cult, leaving them with a future of torture, torment, pain, suffering, and sadness in Unhappy Place. This is such a compelling argument, I’m surprised no cult has ever considered this method before. Heh.

-Supernova

*If we say FAKE created everything, it means he also made Unhappy Place. We’ll only recognize this if someone asks outright if this is true, but otherwise we’ll keep it on the down-low, because it makes FAKE into a major buzzkill.


A Thought Experiment – Part 1 of 3

Let’s make a cult.

A cult, as defined here, is a religion that is known to its founders are completely untrue; just a confidence trick (also known as a “con job”). We’re not going to make a real cult, and I want that to be obvious from the beginning – besides the title of this blog, I’m also going to entitle the parts of my cult with silly names.  My objective is to demonstrate how a religion could be invented, and compare the end-product with modern religions.

While this project will be a theoretical religion, keep in mind that this actually happens – religions are invented. Even if you’ve never seen a cult in action, you know that they exist. If you have a religious belief, then you also believe that every other religion is simply man-made*. It may strike atheists as astounding that religious believers can’t turn this same critical eye on their own religions and consider that they might also be purely invented, but a well-constructed religion has safeguards to prevent that, as we’ll see below.

 

The first step of creating a cult is to get followers. We simply can’t have a cult without followers, and we can’t have followers unless we have something to offer them. Bands have cult followings because they offer music that the masses enjoy. Some movies are infinitely re-watchable and fun to experience, and they also have cult followers. I’m going to assume, though, that you’re some random schmuck like myself without such talent. So how do people like us getting a following?

If we can’t offer people something tangible, then we’ll offer something intangible. I’ve noticed that people have an innate fear of death. Let’s exploit that. We’ll tell them about Happy Place, a paradise that they’ll enjoy for eternity after death if they choose to join our cult. While this in itself may serve to get followers, we’ll also need to reinforce this theme so that our followers won’t leave. So let’s tell people that the only alternative to Happy Place is Unhappy Place, an eternity of torture and agony. This scare tactic would be an extremely cruel thing to use on people if we cared about them. I guess it’s lucky for us that we don’t.

We have another intangible trick up our sleeve. We’ll offer our followers a sense of community. We want the cult to feel like a family, so that leaving will feel like a break-up – and we all know that breaking up is hard to do. We’ll tell our followers that we love them, and we’ll get together for regular meetings like friends would.

Once we’ve got a follower on the hook, they should be ours for life. By reminding them of the pain and torture of Unhappy Place (and of how apparently easy this is to avoid), they’ll see everyone outside of the cult as idiots and themselves as superior. This is a strong incentive, as no sane person would want to leave the sense of comfort, community, and superiority we’ve offered them for the only alternative we’ve offered – rejection, humility, and Unhappy Place.

-Supernova

*Please excuse my sexism when I call religion man-made, but I haven’t come across a single religion founded by a woman. This is a credit to your sex, ladies, and I’m mentally high-fiving all of you.


What Would Allah Do?

In response to older debate topics and those to come, I would invite my Christian readers to consider a filter for all their responses. Let’s call it the WWAD (What Would Allah Do?) Razor. To define it, I’d say the WWAD Razor is “eliminating a response that a Muslim could give (replacing God with Allah or Bible with Qur’an) that would not convince you.” To summarize, I’d rather not hear responses that, if coming from a Muslim, would not be compelling to you.

For instance, let’s say that I argue that natural disasters should not occur, because they are incompatible with God as we know Him. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami killed nearly 228,000 people and displaced half a million from their homes. It is reasonable to assume that at least one of these people was innocent and didn’t deserve death. If this happened under the watch of an omniscient, benevolent, and omnipotent God then it couldn’t have happened – He’d have seen it, wanted to prevent it, and been able to prevent it. But in reality it was not prevented and caused lots of damage to human lives and unmeasurable suffering.

A logical, unbiased, reasoned response may follow like so: Your assumptions are false. The bible doesn’t state that God is omnipotent. This is merely assumed by Christians to make sense of ideas like Creation… or…  Disasters like this follow the pattern shown in Noah’s Flood and the future destruction of the Earth in end times, so it’s natural to assume that this pattern will continue. You’d have to study and understand the motivations behind these disasters to understand the Tsunami… or… Maybe God prevented a larger disaster from happening by allowing this one. After all, it did slow down the year by a little bit. This could add up to something in the larger scheme.

A biased response follows like this: God is mysterious, and we can’t even begin to figure out His ways. There may be a greater good in things like the Tsunami, and we assume there is because God is much smarter than you. What do you think you know about suffering? God loves these people much more than you do.

The biased response is one that I wish never to hear, and should never be put forward because even the ones writing it don’t believe it. If it read “Allah is mysterious, and we can’t…  etc.” then the writer wouldn’t find it a good point anymore. If he or she read such a statement, that person would dismiss it offhand immediately and think something like “Well, of course that’s what you believe” without a single moment of even considering its validity. And it is what Muslims believe. They are as convinced that their doctrine is true as Christians are of theirs. They believe that their God exists and is in control just as much as Christians do. But the strength of their conviction doesn’t move you to believe in Allah, nor do quotes from their holy text suggest that they have a better grasp of the facts than you do.

This is a good point to remember whenever you debate about religion with anyone. You have to be able to see it from your opponent’s point of view, and this is the best way to do that. If your opponent were to make the same point that you are making, and substituted the name of a God that you don’t believe in, would his argument win you over? If not, then you can see from his point of view why it isn’t winning him over. Use the WWAD Razor to refine your arguments and get rid of the ones that will have no effect.

-Supernova


Science and Dogma

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”  Hebrews 11:1

“Faith is the license believers give each other to go on believing absurdities”  Sam Harris, in Letter to a Christian Nation

Astrology is bad science. This is obvious to rational people. The evidence supporting it is weak while the evidence against it is strong. I’ve mentioned the point in an earlier blog, and brought up the example of identical twins leading less than identical lives. This one fact alone is proof that Astrology is not scientific.

And yet, millions of Americans still believe in the fact of Astrology. Many make a living writing horoscopes and/or star charts. It is so popular that very few newspapers are without a daily horoscope – although plenty of them are savvy enough to realize this isn’t actual news, so they lump it with comics and add the disclaimer “For entertainment purposes only.”

Despite this disclaimer, the irrationality behind the very idea, and the evidence against it, Astrology still finds many subscribers. How is this possible? It’s because of faith. Those with faith in this bad science think that when a horoscope appears false that they must have misinterpreted it. Or they rationalize it by stretching its meaning to fit their experiences (horoscopes are well-known to be “vanilla” for this very purpose). Or they call it an “imperfect science” that has too many variables to be entirely accurate, like meteorology. They use faith in the first sense defined above, in being certain of the unseen.

The rest of us see such faith in the light of the second definition, a license to believe when facts fail. We don’t see their faith as noble or virtuous but rather as a poor excuse. This unwavering and stubborn faith is known as dogma.

We must all have faith, but we need not have dogma. I have personally never been in space and seen the round Earth with my own eyes, but I believe that it is round. There is a preponderance of evidence attesting to a round Earth, so much so that you would be irrational in this modern age to believe in a flat Earth. The difference between this scientific faith and dogma is that faith alone is nor required, nor is it unalterable. I could believe in a flat Earth if the evidence in its favor was greater. I have, after all, never seen a round Earth with my own eyes.

While it’s unlikely that scientists will revert to teaching a flat Earth, it’s possible because science is reasonable. Scientists would rather discover new data through trial and error rather than to admit that science is incapable of error. It’s wiser to a scientist to be as accurate and correct as possible rather than be seen as infallible. This is scientific faith.

The Holocaust actually happened. While this isn’t proven in experiments by men in white lab coats, it is scientific fact. The historical data, the eye-witnesses, and the standing architecture all give strong evidence to a Holocaust that actually occurred. The dogmatic view that the Holocaust never happened (which is actually held by many people) is based on weak evidence, and more importantly on a platform that no amount of evidence will ever change the minds of those who hold this view. The scientific view is based on a rational examination of the evidence at hand.

Religion is based on dogma. Believers have not left an out, a way to disprove their religion, and if you attempted you’d soon run into the excuse of needed faith. There is no way to change their minds, and no amount of evidence will ever amount to an iota of difference. This is why religious believers are hostile towards science, and always will be.

-Supernova