Sunday, March 28, 2010

On a day when I praise Sam Harris

Sean at Cosmic Variance tears Sam's assumptions apart.

I watched the Ted Talk he refers to shortly after it was posted, but I didn't find it interesting enough to recommend to friends, nor to listen to again. Ah, I'm listening to it again and this is the question that made me dismiss the talk a minute and a half in: "Why is it that we don't have ethical obligations towards rocks?"

Of course, in my bizarre worldview, I do have ethical obligations towards rocks.

Sam goes on to ask:

And if we're more concerned about our fellow primates than we are about insects, as indeed we are, it's because we think they're exposed to a greater range of potential happiness and suffering. [Uh, no, again, I'm as concerned with insects as my fellow primates and it has nothing to do with their range of potential happiness and suffering--both primates and insects are sentient.]

Sean appears to have become hung up in the lack of logic at this same point, although for a different reason: "Let’s grant the factual nature of the claim that primates are exposed to a greater range of happiness and suffering than insects or rocks. So what? That doesn’t mean we should care about their suffering or happiness; it doesn’t imply anything at all about morality, how we ought to feel, or how to draw the line between right and wrong." Sean says that science doesn't really have anything to do with morality, and his points seem valid to me.

When I listened to the original talk, I realize that I thought that Sam Harris is like the rest of the world--he doesn't share my worldview. He has a Judeo-Christian-scientific view that doesn't match mine. Yes, I know. I'm weird.

Sam Harris says it all

In a Nightline "debate" (i.e., discussion), Does God have a future?, Sam Harris expressed what I feel about religion. Here is my transcript of what he said:

Well, I think as you've begun to hear, there are two very different kinds of conversations we could have here.

We can talk about religion as it is for most people, most of the time and we can talk about what religion could be or should be or perhaps what it is for the tiniest minority of people. And I just want you to be aware of the difference there because it could get lost.

It's true that some people define God as pure consciousness or as being synonymous with the laws of nature. But if we talk about consciousness and the laws of nature, we won't be talking about the God that most of our neighbors believe in, which is a personal God who hears our prayers and occasionally answers them.

So I just want you to be sensitive to this because if Michael or I say something derogatory about Islam or Christianity, which seems possible, the response from the other side shouldn't mention quantum mechanics and it shouldn't reference a notion of God that is so denuded of doctrine as to more or less be synonymous with pure mystery or pure information or pure energy or pure anything.

So I just wanted, I wanted to plant a flag there where you all can see it. Because the God that our neighbors believe in is essentially an invisible person. Is a creator deity who created the universe to have a relationship with one species of primate--lucky us. And he's got galaxy upon galaxy to attend to, but he's especially concerned with what we do. And he's especially concerned with what we do while naked. He almost certainly disapproves of homosexuality and he's created this cosmos as a vast laboratory in which to test our powers of credulity and the test is this: "Can you believe in this God on bad evidence?" which is to say, on faith. And if you can, you will win an eternity of happiness after you die. And it's precisely this sort of God and this sort of scheme that you must believe in if you're going to have any kind of future in politics in this country. No matter what your gifts. You could be an unprecedented genius, you could look like George Clooney, you could have a billion dollars, and you could have the social skills of Oprah, and you are going nowhere in politics in this country unless you believe in that sort of God. So we can talk about anything we want. I'm happy to talk about consciousness, but please notice that when we migrate away from the God that is really shaping human events, or the God talk that is really shaping human events in our world at this moment.

I was curious to watch this discussion in part because I've only encountered Deepak Chopra's writings at The Huffington Post (one of the many reasons I no longer subscribe to their full blog feed). I wanted to hear him speak. To have Michael Shermer and Sam Harris opposed by Deepak and Jean Houston seemed like a stacked deck against irrationality since Chopra and Houston were frequently incoherent. It might have been more interesting to see them debate a devout Christian, Jewish, or Islamic clergy.

Sam says that in the second video. All 12 parts of the "debate" are available at YouTube. Embedded below is the first video.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Matthew 2:13-18

Maybe this won't be true once I get past the Nativity, but at least for this part of the New Testament, I associate every few verses with a song.

I read these verses and note Matthew's attempts to further link Jesus to obscure, seemingly unrelated passages from the Old Testament. For example, Matthew says that a prophet proclaims "Out of Egypt I will call my son." Matthew reminds me of those people who pick up the Bible, open a page at random, and seek wisdom from the verse they find. After all, in Hosea 11:1, the son God is referring to is the nation of Israel. Hosea 11:2 talks about Israel, the son, making sacrifices to idols such as Baal. Although the prophets tend to be cryptic in their prophecies, why would Matthew interpret this verse as referring to a coming Messiah?

The jealous Herod, fearing the birth of a new king and lacking the knowledge of the magi about exactly where he's located, orders that all boys two and under should be killed. Perhaps there's archaeological evidence of this massacre, or independent confirmations, but again, it seems that Matthew might be making up an event to fit with a prophecy from Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah is a prophet who exhorted the people of Israel to behave better during the time of the Babylonian exile. Matthew takes a verse to show that Jeremiah foretold the death of the infants--Rachel is weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted. It seems that only in the case of Biblical exegesis would anyone give credence to Matthew's attempt to link Jesus to Old Testament Messianic prophecy. At least, that's the way it seems to an atheist who rolls her eyes at yet another tenuous connection which proves nothing about Jesus's divinity.

I like the rendition below of The Coventry Carol by The Cambridge Singers even though this isn't the way I sing it. I think I'll learn the version below on guitar. If I start now, maybe I'll be able to play it by Christmas.

Lullay, thou little tiny child, by by lully lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, by by lully lullay.

O sisters, too, how may we do, for to preserve this day;
This poor youngling for whom we sing, by by lully lullay.

Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day;
His men of might in his own sight, all children young to slay.

Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, and ever morn and day.
For thy parting, nor say nor sing, by by lully lullay.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Why Christians read the Bible

I took an Old Testament History class a long time ago, which I ended up dropping because I already knew the topic well. The class was filled with Christians of various denominations who didn't know the Old Testament at all. They grew up in churches which emphasized the New Testament. Out of 20 class members, the instructor and I were the only ones who had read the Old Testament, and he was an ordained minister.

I thought at the time that it was odd that these devout believers could be so ignorant about the foundations of their own religion, but since then I've found it to be common.

A Christian blogger asked yesterday Why do we read the Bible? You can read about her reasons at that link.

I'm re-reading it to re-visit the seeds of my atheism; most Christians presumably read it because a) they're told to or b) they want to reaffirm their faith. They regard the Bible as a book with answers. I'm incapable of thinking about the Bible as a benign, enlightening, or uplifting book, but hey, maybe after I re-read it this time, I'll change my mind.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Religion overload

On Friday, we didn't have school but we had a Christian rock invasion. A local church sponsored a rock group. The only students hanging around school were the conservative Christian teens who helped the rockers set up.

Theoretically, the church brings in groups like this to convert new members of the church, but in practice the only ones who attend are already members, so they revert to talking about reaffirming one's faith and renewing their response to the call of Jesus.

Christian rock consists of love songs--but only about love songs about God and Jesus; and of covers of classic rock songs, with the lyrics rewritten to talk about the singer's relationship and love for God and Jesus. No one who loves music loves Christian rock.

Yesterday, as I was leaving the house to do a favor for one of my sons' friends, a lady walked onto my property and tried to hand me a pamphlet about an upcoming "worldwide" meeting of some sort. My usual approach to Jehovah's Witnesses is to slam the door in their faces, but I met this single person in my driveway, where there was no door to slam, so I told her to go away, that I'm an atheist, and that's she's crazy to belong to a patriarchal organization which hates women. My son said I was overly harsh. I wonder why proselytizers feel it's okay to approach someone on private property. We have laws in our city against door-to-door salesmen. In what way is this different?

When we returned from running the errand, a strange car was parked in my driveway. We walked inside and saw an empty cooler. My son went into the kitchen to find the mother of one of his friends who was stowing leftover spaghetti and meatballs in my refrigerator. "I just came right in when no one answered," she said. "I didn't want this food to spoil."

Ah, yes, give the vegetarian left-over meat sauce spaghetti. Walk into my house uninvited. Witness my filthy kitchen. Of course, even though she's doing this out of a sense of Christian charity (she's a minister's wife), it's impossible to stay angry at this woman because she is a genuinely good person. "Well, I'm off to choir practice at the church." Have fun. Next time, call ahead. Next time, wait before you walk into my house. Next time, don't bring meat.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Unintentional coming out

I can keep a secret if I'm told it's a secret, but I've never been all that great at hiding who I really am.

I mentioned to a colleague that a Christian (Ray Comfort) was giving away dinners for two to atheists. "Why is he doing that?" my colleague asked.

"That's what we wonder," I replied.

"We?" he asked.

Oh, well, I outed myself again.