Would you make a human sacrifice to walk again…

I was privileged yesterday to have had a very lengthy (in the area of four hours) conversation with someone whose ideas are so perfectly opposed to mine that I almost think I hallucinated the whole thing. My only evidence remaining that it happened is that I am in the room with the guy right now, and he seems to recall the conversation… And he also seems to recall that we have almost perfect disagreement on all points, so I feel comfortable at this point with the idea that I actually had this conversation.

To start, I am going to describe this man as the most intelligent Fox News viewer I have ever spoken to (at the least), and certainly is more intelligent than I ever thought a Fox News viewer had the capacity to be. That being said, his grasp of evidence was incredibly skewed, and his tactic of discussion incredibly… Well, he was certainly sincere, but to me it seems his beliefs are quite disingenuous.

When we arrived on the topic of Stem Cell Research and more specifically Embryonic Stem Cell research, it was the choice quote that I made the title of this post that really brought me to a screeching halt. It came down to an argument of joint biology combined with the legendary arithmetic of souls. “A blastocyst,” to his credit he was familiar with what the term, “is a human being just as much as you or me.”

My reply came from the perspective of my motto, to bring more happiness than I take, and I replied “If embryonic stem cell research had even one half of one percent chance to allow even a single quadriplegic to walk, it would be a worthwhile field to study.”

“Would you,” he patiently intoned, “Sacrifice a human being so you could walk again?”

This gave me pause, and I will admit that I was stymied a little. I was not stymied because I thought he had the right of it, but because it was at this moment that the root, the core of the issue to the two of us was different, and I was not sure I had the evidence that I would need to even tell him was my side is let alone have him believe it.

It was only after the conversation, during my later musings and research, that several points began to coalesce in my mind. The first of the points that I believe came to serve my side comes in the form of spontaneous abortion (or, to use the more common term, miscarriage). The National Institutes for Health, an organization in the United States, estimates that over 50% of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion before the end of the first trimester. Now, given the US birth rate (2014) of 13.62/1000 persons, we can reason that there are some 360,000 or so pregnancies wherein the fetus is killed not by doctors, not be intent, but by the mother’s own body for reasons that are unclear or difficult to study. To rephrase an idea I first heard from Sam Harris, if you are worried about abortion, you should worry about God–surely he is the most prolific abortionist of all.

If we are going to get into the arithmetic of souls, what happens to the souls of these spontaneously miscarried first trimester fetuses? In the Catholic tradition, a soul is imparted at conception, and many other Christian denominations agree. What happens, then, to these 360,000 excess souls? The souls of the children that die less than 90 days after they are conceived? Did God craft that soul in His hands, in His heart, for the purpose of killing it before it had a brain?

I will leave the answer to that question as an exercise to the reader, and move on to my next point.

The cells used in embryonic stem cell research are grown in a petri dish and would not otherwise be implanted in a woman. These embryos, used for medical research on generally the third day of development, are about 150 cells in size and are not recognizable as anything human unless viewed at the level of DNA. If I lined up 1000 microscopes with 1000 different 3 day old embryos in them, you would not be able to find the human among them. If I lined up 2 microscopes, you would not be able to tell the difference. But even then, that isn’t the point.

These embryos serve an incredibly high calling. If you believe they have a soul, then that soul could go to making a person walk. That soul could go to preserving the soul of a young person dying in a burn ward. That soul could go to allowing the blind to see.

If you want to compare it to the story of Jesus, that soul could be described as allowing the blind to see, the lame to walk, the deaf to hear, and may open the very door to allowing the deceased to walk again. (That last one is exaggeration, I just wanted to complete the metaphor.)

I was told by this man that embryonic stem cell research was a worthless field, and that no breakthroughs had come or could come from it. I did not speak to it at the time because I have not followed the field closely, but my original thought was that “Well, of course not much has come from it… It is illegal in the United States, the country where most pharmaceutical research is done.” I have since checked in on it.

At its peak, there were two firms researching embryonic stem cell treatments, and one went under due to lack of investment (no one would invest in it out of fear of legal repercussions, which is sadly very valid). The second, though, has made breakthroughs of incredible importance, and did so on its first attempt on humans. In 2012, ACT (Advanced Cell Technology) performed a clinical trial based on embryonic stem cell research that restored sight to a man with macular degeneration so bad that it had caused blindness. Macular degeneration is a process that is not otherwise reversible, and generally affects all people as they age to varying degrees. This man, blinded, was obviously less lucky — generally you end up with sight degradation, but not complete blindness.

They reversed the macular degeneration. I will type that again, so it is clear. It was reversed. It was not just stopped, resulting in his vision being static; they restored the dead nerves. These are the types or procedures that could restore walking in humans, as nerve regrowth has been a problem with human healing for … Well, as long as medicine has been a thing.

This is the medical field that my partner in discussion said was dead and worthless. This brings me no end to my sadness, as I know there are more people (certainly more in the United States) that think as he does, and fewer who think as I do.

Why has growth in this field been so slow? Well, slow is a bit of a misused word… It is a field that is very young, less than two decades old. And in that two decades, we have restored sight to the blind. Perhaps there is a fear that we are treading upon the toes of miracles, but I believe that if humans can create miracles, we have something akin to obligation to do so. In any case, the reason that growth is so slow is due to staunch religious opposition even to investigating this. I would think that the knowledge that as many as 50% of all pregnancies ending (50% of all fetuses dying) should give you the required perspective to realize that the purpose to which embryos in stem cell research are put is far greater than could possibly be stated merely in words by some small time blogger. The destruction of 10,000 embryos today could save the life of a trillion people over the future of human history, and yet the progress is stymied by the fact that a soul may be destroyed in the process?

This does not seem the fault of doctors or scientists, this seems the kind of thing one should ask God directly. Why would He, in His infinite wisdom, destroy half of the souls he creates before there is something recognizable as a body attached to them? Why would He create a universe where the answer to an infinite number of medical conditions lies at the heart of a cluster of cells so small that a fly could not even see them for standing on them?

God, surely, had the ability to create us with the ability to heal from things such as a break of our spinal cord… But He did not. God, surely, could have placed the answer to these medical issues in a place that would not require the destruction of embryos… But He did not. God, surely, could have told us when a soul is imparted upon a human being… But He did not.

The answers to all of the above questions of great moral weight have never been in the hands of God, but in the hands of men who care more about the suffering of human beings who think and feel than they do about the theological arithmetic of souls. Perhaps there is a soul imparted at conception, but if there is God spared no word in the Bible to that effect. Perhaps the souls of children are subject to different laws than the souls of adults, for surely they cannot have given God any cause to punish them aside from their original sin… But a strict reading of original sin means they go to hell. If the souls of destroyed embryos go to hell, surely the question should be raised to God why it is He who destroys half of all souls before they have the ability to see, to think, to breath, even to feel.

And what if those souls go to heaven? We are then given to wonder why anyone would want to stop stem cell research when the outcomes would be 100% positive? A soul goes to heaven, and an additional soul is spared from pain, given sight, given the ability to walk. Everybody wins!

You end up with an odd question, if you probe the depths of this too deeply. What does the soul of a cluster of 150 cells look like? When it goes to heaven, does it have a personality? Does it have the ability to feel? If it goes to hell, what is it that arrives in hell? Are Satan’s floors littered with 150 cell souls, so small he does not even realize they have arrived? How does one torture these souls? To step on them would do nothing according to any physics we know. To throw them in fire eternal, where the flame never quenches and the worm never dies, even that would do nothing — for the cells have no nervous system.

Does God impart upon them the soul of their fully developed selves? Does God give to them an adult soul, only to snuff half of those souls out? If so, what is wrong with your God? Why would anyone worship such a being? If the souls of these dead embryos go to heaven, then perhaps there is some mercy in your God, but if they do not, if these souls go to hell as punishment for Adam’s original sin, I would not worship such an evil God under threat of eternal hellfire. Such a tyrant the world has never known; the death of six million Jews? God has snuffed out one hundred thousand times more than that, even before they saw the light of day, drew their first breath. If He sent that number to hell, if He crafted those souls to the purpose of the Pit of Hellfire, He does not deserve worship. He deserves war.

These are all idle speculations, of course — there is no theological evidence either way, to know what happens to these souls. God did not see fit to tell us. Does that not worry you, if you believe in the soul at conception? Does God have something to hide?

I believe in the goodness of most human beings. There are evil among us, but they are not the majority.

I believe that the humans who work in stem cell research are not murderers, but men and women with the goal of alleviating suffering, of curing the sick, of giving the blind to see and the lame to walk. I would worship these humans more readily than I would worship a God who crafts souls only to snuff them out before the mother knows she is pregnant. Unless those souls get a free ride to Heaven, of course — if they do, I will give your God a passing grade. It is pointless, mind, that He would create a soul, place it in an embryo, snuff it out, and recall it to Himself in under 8 weeks, mind — an act of futility, almost a waste of effort, but as I have been told, His ways are mysterious, His plans inscrutable.

After you have read this, tell me in the comments, please. Tell me what it is that has you in opposition of embryonic stem cell research. Tell me what it is in your faith that sees the suffering of a blind man, the suffering of a quadriplegic, the suffering of all those around you, and says “No, I will stand in opposition of helping those people.”

I do not see it, I cannot understand it, and it is in this arena that the darkness of your beliefs snuffs out so much of the light of your religion to me. I cannot see the love of it. I cannot see the glory of it. I cannot see the Hand of your God in it.

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Building Cities

It is an odd thing, to cling to certain beliefs in opposition of strong evidence. I don’t mean the belief in a religion, as no evidence can take that from you, but belief in an inerrant Bible, completely free of contradictions? That is something of a puzzle, more difficult to understand from an outsider. What day was Jesus crucified? Well, the gospels are all a little askew about that. If you want to go even smaller, how many times did the cock crow to denounce Peter? Again, there is disagreement. How about whether the Old Testament Law still applies? Again, there are separate commandments.

Muslims have admitted that there are contradictions in the Qur’an, and they have accepted it and created rules around it. I like their approach; under the theory of progressive revelation (to which many Christians subscribe as well), they have decided that more recent revelations take precedence. Effectively, for a book that is a single revelation from a single point in time, the latter chapters obviously have the weight of religious law about them.

That being said, this is just a single example of people handling the evidence differently, and not really the point of this post.

The point of this post is about why people need to come up with beliefs in spite of opposing evidence, and for me it is all about building a city. Each belief rests upon a foundation of rock or sand (my Biblically minded readers should understand this), and the stability of it depends on what you chose to build it on.

This is not as easy as you think, nor as simple–science and religion can both be used as foundations, but honestly needn’t be; science can rest on a foundation of religion, as religion can rest on a foundation of science. I hope to clarify that some, and explain why I am writing this at all.

A strong foundation of religion is an incredibly solid rock built on a faultline; the foundation will never crack, but one day it may be gone completely. If you have built everything on this rock, you may find one day, when your belief is gone, that you are left with nothing. Something like this happened to me, when I was younger, but thankfully it was early enough for me to step back and assess my situation. Some time during my childhood, I don’t know exactly when, but I definitely realized it during my confirmation in Grade 7 (12 or 13 years old, I suppose I would have been)–I had stopped building. It was around then that I realized I was not nearly as sure of my foundation as I was told I should have been. I did not begin deconstructing or moving my city then, but certainly I stopped building.

A strong foundation of science is a bit of a different thing; science is moving, gaining understanding. Science is still a foundation of rock, but perhaps not so strong as religion. Occasionally cracks show, and we must go to repair them before we can continue building upon them. The strong religious among us may stand and watch as we repair the cracks, mocking us for the extra work we have gained for ourselves while they luxuriate in their peaceful cities, their strong beliefs… And some may go to their graves, never having had to change their beliefs…

Some, though… Some will suffer an earthquake, and their strong foundation will change to sand. If this happens when they are 40, what are they left to do? Stare at the rubble of their life or rebuild? Start a whole new city from the ground up, at a time when a solid foundation is much more difficult to find?

This situation assumes some sort of mutual exclusivity, that religion and science can’t co-exist. That is not the case, and I follow two wonderful bloggers who build their religious beliefs upon a rock solid foundation of science (that was an awful pun, as the two bloggers I am talking about are the GeoChristian and Age of Rocks). When scoping how to build their city, they did not listen to religious salesmen (Evangelists) who said “Ah, build it here, you will never go wrong, look how solid our rock is!” They are still very religious, and a quick read of their blog (and the comments, with some very interesting infighting) will show that they are every bit as sincere in their beliefs as any Evangelical, but they have built that upon science as a foundation–or perhaps even deeper, they use a two layer foundation, part science, part faith. I respect their stance, though, and the fact that they have seen the issues in their faith and not shied from them, but approached them head on with eyes open.

I think it all boils down to one definition, and the different ways people understand it.

Faith: Belief in something in the absence of evidence. Religion falls into this definition.

Faith is not belief in something in opposition of evidence. Biblical inerrancy falls under this heading.

Be careful how you build your city, you may find no errors for forty years… But that does not mean none are there. Make sure you constantly maintain your foundation, or you may find it has turned to sand when you go to check on it.

Exodus: Gods and Kings Biblical review

This is not the Charlton Heston movie you may remember…  In fact, if you are a regular reader and remember my recent “Exodus Abridged” series, you will have a clearer idea of what this movie is about than most walking into that theater. It is not romantic, and at times it is not pleasant; this movie, while handling the story of Exodus, does not shy away from the human cost of God’s freeing of the Hebrew slaves.

You may recall that in the story of Exodus, God’s plagues are not targeted; He would plague the Hebrew people as easily and often as He would plague the Egyptians. The curse of the blood was said to make the whole of Egypt smell of rot, and that happened. The mountains of dead frogs and plague of gnats and flies are portrayed in suitably horrifying ways, the plague of disease has a massive cost, and Ridley Scott does not shy away from showing the suffering of the Egyptian people as a result, and the curse of the firstborn, for which the passover feast is celebrated is–difficult to watch, for anyone with a strong sense of empathy. It is often said no parent should have to watch their child pass before them, but here we watch an entire nation mourn.

It is from this point of view that it is difficult to really question Pharaoh’s decision to follow the Israelites and attempt to kill them; his was a nation in mourning, a soul crushing sadness, a grief that would affect even the most hardened soul.

Theological criticism has been levied towards the fact that a question is raised by the movie as to whether Moses hallucinated his conversations with God, though no question as to the intervention of God is left open. I think this should certainly count for something. I… Could it be said to be called enjoyment? In any case, the method by which the Nile is turned to blood is what I would expect to see of an all powerful God who wanted to strike the fear of God into a nation. I won’t spoil the method, as that is the joy of watching the movie. You know the plot, I should think, so my description should hardly come as a spoiler.

While Christian Bale may have said Moses was a terrorist, Moses is portrayed mostly as a moral man, a good man. When the first of the plagues strikes, it is Moses that criticises God; “Why do you send the plagues on Egypt and on Israel together? Your own people suffer!” This becomes something of a theme in the latter half of the movie, as God tells Moses “I like you, for you are willing to disagree with me.” This thought comes directly from the Bible, and I am glad that Ridley had the cajones to include it; many Christians that I know and are friends with certainly did not know that people routinely talked back to God in the Old Testament, and I am afraid they will consider this a Hollywood choice rather than something that comes from the Bible.

Ultimately, this is a movie about three things; humans doing human things, suffering, and the power of God. What it says about the personality of God is left up to the watcher, as in the Bible it is left for the reader to decide. In my personal opinion, this movie says the same thing about God that the Bible does, and I certainly don’t think it is a romantic message in any case.

For whatever reason, much has been said by those around me as to the presence (rather, the lack of presence) of the Staff of God. The staff from the Bible that Moses used to win battles, cast miracles, and turn into a snake. There is no snake scene in this; the first plague is that of the bloody Nile. All of the subsequent plagues are in full display, too, and if you are squeamish you may not like some of the following. Mountains of dead frogs, as I mentioned, as well as gnats, flies, diseased cattle, plagued people, locusts, even the curse of darkness is displayed momentarily, and the plague of great hail is seen to crush Egyptians and any Hebrews unlucky enough to be outside when it begins (and in this tale, there was no advance warning as was given in the original book of Exodus).

Moses does not approach Pharaoh between the plagues. He approaches Ramses once, and basically says God is going to wreck his day until he releases the Hebrew slaves, and the message is left at that. Once God starts with the plagues, Moses asked “What do you want me to do?”

God replies succinctly: “Watch.”

There are no brakes on the plague train.

In the end, we see Moses crafting the Ten Commandments and the Ark of the Covenant. If you are of the Biblical mind, you know where the ending leads… If you are there to watch a Hollywood movie, there are lots of unresolved plot threads, though you are left with a somewhat positive outlook. You don’t know that Moses was about to have several of his own people killed by the Levites, for example. There is also no mention of the subsequent 40 year desert journey.

As far as the movie goes, I very much enjoyed it. While a more human take on the whole tale than many would want, it truly captures the tale in a powerful and emotional way.

If you are open minded about your own religion, I definitely recommend it. If you want a modern retelling of The Ten Commandments, you are probably in the wrong theater.

If you are looking for a more objective review of the movie, I wrote another review over at Guardians of Geek. Take a read, or just browse the site if you are into nerdier fare!

Best Friends with God

The below contains some straw man arguments; it is not because I am intentionally doing so, it is more because as soon as a Christian hears an atheist speak of their religion, the conversation ends. I would like to speak with someone about my concerns below; I am not irreligious because I want to be, I am irreligious because no one seems to want to answer my questions and religion has left me adrift–but atheism took me in with open arms.

I have many Christian friends of various faiths, some nondenominational, some Anglican, some Catholic… I have one Muslim friend, and several atheist friends. I have one friend whose own personal religion would be impossible to describe without at least three textbooks, some art supplies, and a team of interpretive dancers. I am not going in the direction you might think I am going in with this; what I am saying is that, despite the fact that we may disagree on questions of ultimate meaning, we all have personalities that are otherwise very compatible. If my Christian friends were of the intolerant kind, I would be deprived of great friendships for my latent atheism (and, if they would permit me to say so, I think they would be deprived of a very eccentric friend in me).

So, let’s talk about our relationship with God; I don’t care whether or not you believe in Him, I don’t, but even then my nonbelief could be framed in terms of my relationship with the idea of God.

My relationship with God, my not believing in His existence (or, at the very minimum, my not believing in the existence of the Christian God) could be seen in a fairly negative light. If He exists, I suppose it could be said that I have a fairly dim view of him. But let’s talk about your relationship with Him, theoretical straw man who doesn’t like to talk to me!

How would you describe your relationship with God? Do you love Him? Does He love you? Before you answer “Yes, and yes!” I would like you to step back and think very hard about the reason you are answering the way you do. I would like for you to give me examples from the Bible that show God’s love for you. I will not permit things such as God saying I love you, as words are fickle and can mean many things. God says He is Just and slow to anger, but it was very, very, very shortly before saying this very thing that He said “They built a golden calf. I have chosen my people poorly. I will kill them all.” (Exodus 32:9-10, 34:6)

So please, let us let God’s actions speak for Him, and tell me why you think He loves you. I am going to disqualify a couple of things that I know you will mention, and if you manage to requalify them by evidence that’s ok–but it had better be pretty good.

First, sending His only begotten Son to redeem our Sins. This seems great, as I have been told many times “Sins must be punished,” but you are using this as a “Get out of Jail Free” card; ‘I don’t have to go to hell because Jesus died for my sins.’ This is odd to me, as Jesus did not die (or rather, it was a temporary condition) and then, if Jesus did, how do you justify this? God can forgive your sins now, because Jesus died? Is that the condition for your God’s love? That something dies? Is that love?

“I am sorry, dear wife, that I have cheated on you.”

“Oh, well, if you kill our son I will forgive you.”

No, this does not indicate love. If our God was a God of “boundless” love, of “unconditional” love, of “unconditional” forgiveness, as I’ve been told colloquially, where is the evidence of that? It sounds to me like the bound of His love is “sinning even one time,” like the condition of His love is “kill something in my name, and make it good,” like the condition of His forgiveness is “recognizing that I killed something awesome.” The things i have just mentioned are bounds and conditions that completely and logically prove that God has conditions and bounds.

So how would we describe this relationship, then? I would say we have, or rather you have, a friendship with God. Not just a friendship, but a best friendship. You can tell Him anything, because He already knows your secrets.But you can disagree with His views on the universe and still be friends with Him; Moses did, and Abraham did. “What what what?” you say, “Moses and Abraham disagreed with God? But I must take His will in the most literal and binding sense!”

In Exodus 32, God says “I am going to smite the Israelites and start over.”

Moses replies “No, don’t do that. How could you even think of doing that? No, let’s go and work with them, maybe only kill a few of them.” (Well, 3000 of them ended up being the death toll of Moses’ judgement of the Israelites, which admittedly is far more merciful than God tends to be. Exodus 32:27-28)

“But Jesus blotted all of that out! He preached love and tolerance and acceptance!” Yes, he did, to a degree… But he certainly did not blot out the Old Testament’s draconian rules and commandments of sacrifice (Matthew 5:17-20). Jesus may have preached a more tolerant version of the Old Testament, he still thought that sacrificing lambs and doves was a requirement for the forgiveness of sin. If you want to use Jesus as an example of God’s love, I fear you are teaching not Jesus but Paul. I am perfectly willing to admit that Paul taught a doctrine of love, but Paul was but a man writing letters to people containing his version of morality, and I fear that using him as an example of God’s love gives my column more points than it does yours. Paul became a force for love and tolerance, though prior to his conversion to Christianity, he was a draconian acolyte, killing Christians wherever he found them.

“But Paul is a story of redemption, of a man who realized he was in the wrong and came back to the light of Christ!” What you have to remember is that Paul was preaching Paul’s own brand of Christianity; the gospels were not formalized back then, it was mostly oral, and until the second and third centuries there were so many different views of Christianity, so many different gospels, that the two biggest forces in the history of the young Christian Church, Paul (Saul of Tarsus) and James, the brother of Jesus, whom they call the Christ (Quoted from the Jewish historian Josephus), may have engaged in fisticuffs on the temple stairs (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth)

So again, show me something that indicates God’s unbounded love through action, not through Paul’s letters, or God himself saying “I totally love you in an unbounded way. Now turn around while I annihilate this city. Also, I am slow to anger, but please forget that I wanted to wipe out the Israelites (again) two chapters ago, and that it was a human who had to remind me of the covenant I made with Abraham.”

The good thing about being friends with God is that you can disagree with Him but still like Him. I think that would be a much healthier religion, personally. I know that isn’t what your current relationship with Him is, but consider it.

I do not want you and God to break up, I just want you to communicate and work through your problems. This teenaged crush you have on Him (OH EM GEE He is like… SO PERFECT! I can’t even tell you how perfect He is! YOU HAVE TO LOVE HIM TOO!) is not helping anyone. So figure some things out between the two of you, because it makes me sad that you let God emotionally abuse you so much, and yet you still come to His defense.

Let Him defend Himself. Let God’s actions defend God. If God is all that, why should you have to defend Him at all? A perfect, timeless God should have been able to make an unambiguous book that speaks through the ages and across languages, and if that is what the Bible is, let me read it and come to my own conclusions. If the Bible is perfect, I’m sure we’ll all agree in the end… Right?

A Personal Kind of Excuse

Edit: Happy 100th post everyone!!!

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians — they are so unlike your Christ.” -Mahatma Ghandi

“With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, you need religion.” -Steven Weinberg

“I’d like to think that, thanks to my intelligence, I make very few mistakes… But when I do make mistakes, they tend to be legendary.” -Me

The above three quotes tie together so well that it almost seems some kind of magic, even some kind of miracle. I don’t think that is an accident; the quote I gave from myself is one I tend to use as a talisman to ensure I retain some level of humbleness; it is when I think I am right most often that I make the worst mistakes (I once made a mistake so legendary it made the news, though thankfully my name was removed from the story). This is not anything to do with religion, this is to do with being a human, but it ties back so often to religion and to war that I felt it important to include it as a counterbalance to the Weinberg and Ghandi quotes.

Carl Jung, a great psychiatrist and psychoanalyst of the early 20th century, has been quoted (and the quote slightly varies, but the idea is always the same) as having said “I do not need to believe [in God], I know [God exists]!” This is the type of knowledge that leads to mistakes that can end up being legendary. “In the fullness of time,” writes Sam Harris, “One side of this debate will really win and one side will really lose.” It is in this vein that I try, as best as I am able, to never make an absolute statement with regards to religion.

I will fully admit, of course, that my own brand of intelligence has led me to lose my belief in God, but I would never say “there is no God.” That being said, I am comfortable saying the following: “There is probably no God, and if there is, he/she/it is probably not of the Christian variety.” If I am wrong, and both of those statements turn out wrong (and I am comfortable saying I cannot know the truth until I die), then I am comfortable admitting that I have made a mistake that was, in fact, more grand in scope than I could ever imagine in this life. Perhaps, I am open to thinking, there is something to the Christian religion, and to the fact that I may burn in hell for the things I have come to believe about the world and nature.

That being said, many of my beliefs in nature align with Christian beliefs, though that word was chosen carefully and advisedly. Belief and practice are often two very different things, as any public atheist tends to learn in the fullness of time. It is very few, the number of atheists that have not been told they will burn in hell, or that they should die, or that they are (quoting a letter sent to Richard Dawkins) “Only alive because my God commands me not to kill.”

Perhaps it is my naive reading of the Bible that has made me come to this conclusion, but I would think that wishing a person dead is in direct breach of Matthew 5:27-28, which states that, in part, “Any man who has looked at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” It is in my own naivete that I believe this is a broader commandment, one that charges Christians to keep a pure mind, not only with respect to adultery but with respect to all of the core commandments. This is, again in my mind, bore out by the fact that one of the core commandments states that thou shalt not covet thy neighbors goods; this is not just saying “thou shalt not steal,” but is further saying “thou shalt not think about stealing.”

I think the Golden Rule really needs to be more prominently on display in the Bible, and in the hearts of its readers. I really think that sending hate mail, no matter how justified you feel, is in breach of this rule. I think hating, or in any way persecuting homosexuals, is in direct breach of this rule. I think there are greater moral teachings than the Golden Rule, though it is very good, but like an artist with a block of clay, I work with what I am given. Much in the same way, now that I think about it, an apologist or Christian works with their own block of clay. There are parts of the Bible that no person can say are moral (or if you do, you are looking through some heavily tinted sunglasses), but they are there, so we work through them, all of us, even non-Christians.

Oh, but how do non-Christians deal with the Bible? I would ask the “witches” of Salem, whose belief or nonbelief in God did not matter. I would ask the “heretics” in the middle east for the hundreds of years that the Crusades lasted. I would ask the hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, whose delicate flesh got in the way of the Inquisitor’s hammer (That’s how that worked, right? The Inquisitors were Godly men, and thus never meant to hurt anyone, these people just happened to get in the way. By accident.).

If these examples are too archaic, then how about the Scopes trial of 1925, where science was denied in the very name of God? Or the more recent Vashti McCollum trial of 1948, where her family was ostracized, her children bullied, her name sullied for years. Is that recent enough?

I am not here to bash religion, but I am certainly not above bashing things that are done in the name of Christianity.

If we want to go even more recent, even today Teach the Controversy is being forced (or, at the very least pushed) upon a barely aware populace. The numbers from Gallup and Pew as to the scientific literacy of the United States of America are almost stunning to those outside of the country, and they seem to correlate with increasingy fundamental beliefs in certain areas of the country, rather than more progressive beliefs and education.

There is no “controversy” among the scientific populace, except perhaps between proponents of kin selection versus proponents of group selection, but even then it is a debate that is being solved by evidence and ideas.

The Scopes Trial, or the Vashti McCollum incident could have been gentle non issues; if you would treat an atheist like you would treat any other brother or sister in Christ, history would barely remember her. She would be referenced in court cases, and would certainly have a place in constitutional history, but who remembers the names of the people who pressed for constitutional amendments? No, I doubt seriously that I would be accutely familiar with (or even have heard) the name Vashti McCollum in a truly Christian world, where people practiced truly Christian beliefs.

But in a human world? Perhaps, perhaps I would have, and indeed, I have.

This is the point where you may say “AHA! You admit that being human is the problem! Well, Christianity allows us to transcend our baser instincts!” I am sorry for using a Straw Man in this case; very few people will speak to me of religion face-to-face, so I am forced to use hypothetical readers. I would like to think I am not an obnoxious atheist, but I am passionate where it comes to eliminating human suffering, so I may get more heated than I would like whenever someone defends their bigotry with the Bible… That being said, I must reiterate, I am not here to take religion away, I am here to take away the evil/bad parts of religion, and I will stay the course to that end. Worded another way, I do not want to debate, I want to discuss.

Now, off of that tangent, we are back to speaking about humans and their base instincts. I do not think it is a prevalent belief that women should be murdered wholesale, but why do you think the people of Salem held the witch trials? I do not believe they were evil people, I believe they were good people who did evil things out of fear and superstition–and they used their Bible as the justification.

It is not humanity that is evil, and it is not Christianity that is evil, but this is a case of chemistry taking two things, putting them together in a beaker, and the result is often ugly. To parallel that with something in the real world, I like mentos, and I like Diet Coke (get off my lawn, it still tastes good!!!), but I know that taking a mentos followed by a shot of diet coke is going to end poorly.

This goes back to a point I’ve made before; if we separate religion from our personal image of ourselves, we can transcend this negative interaction. If I say to you “The Bible preaches many evil things, among the good things,” your first reaction should not be one of indignation or hurt; that is a sure sign that the chemical reaction of religion/humanity is curdling your soul. If you ever defend bigotry using the Bible, that is a sure sign that the chemical reaction of religion/humanity is curdling your soul.

If, however, you admit that the Bible has a dark side, and that we can transcend it, but that religion is ultimately a force that allows you to surpass your own baser nature? I will be on your side. I will help you find Bible verses that support you. I will celebrate and trumpet your religion, but you have your humanity in one beaker and your religion in another, and you understand that they can compliment each other, but should perhaps not be directly mixed.

A moralist who takes the good of the Bible and throws out the bad has an incredibly sturdy foundation. That being said, a moralist is perfectly capable of being moral without using the Bible as their foundation, and that should be recognized, too.

We all have different ways of transcending our own personal flaws. Some use religion, though many in different ways. Some use the love of Jesus as a guide to loving thy neighbor; some use the fear of hell. These are two very different things, and I should hope that even the most die-hard Christian can see that. Some do not use religion; for me, it is my empathy. I do not believe in your God, but even so I believe in being moral and loving to those around us. I believe this should extend to the planet we live on, to those who do not share our beliefs, to those who do not share our opinions, to the animals around us. An issue I have taken with many Christians is that their Bible (and their personal beliefs) often do not extend to the protection of animals–but that, I will admit, is only a minor complaint in the big picture.

To summarize, perhaps, using the same example I’ve used before of the pastor who said he’d be a murderer if not for Jesus… You know what? If that is what it takes for you to be moral, ok, I’ll accept. The issue I take with that pastor is that he takes the Bible wholesale; he has the superiority complex that comes of one of the Chosen, he believes all people must be Christian, he believes that Muslims are the height of evil. Those are not moral beliefs, and I have a problem with his religion. His personal religion.

Do I have a problem with all Christians? Certainly not. I have a problem with the immoral Christians.

If you are Christian, I am going to ask you to take a look into yourself and ask not “What does the Bible tell me,” but “Am I doing unto others as I would have them do unto me?”

To bring out a tired example, if homosexuality were the norm and being heterosexual were punishable by ostracism (in progressive places) or death (in less progressive places), would you think anyone should have the right to decide what you do in the privacy of your own home when both parties are completely consenting? No one is harmed by your heterosexuality, you reason, and yea; no one even needs to know you are heterosexual. It has no bearing on anything outside of your love of your husband or your love of your wife.

“Hey Jim, have you finished your homosexual accounting?”

“No, Charles, I did heterosexual accounting.”

“Why’d you tell me that? Now we have to fire you.”

I should hope we all find the above conversation, regardless of our religious views, ridiculous. And that’s the whole point.

So, to beat home what I have said many times on this blog, let’s all be moral, regardless of our background. If only 10% of us would choose to live that way, the world would be a better place within the week.

Everything You Ever Wanted

I know I’ve spoken about morality and religion frequently, but each time my understanding moves forward a notch, I feel like I should post something that helps me consolidate my own knowledge.

The Old Testament is a moral mess, almost no one will argue against that. Whether you are a literalist or a moderate, the apologia you must construct for the Old Testament is a mine field of carefully constructed defense and the slightest misstep can end with your argument blown up and out. “Well, the book of Leviticus is just a set of rules for the Levites, so we can ignore that part.” That kind of thing.

But Exodus! That is a good book; it contains the Ten Commandments, and a wonderful story of redemption from slavery and a kind God who saves His people–but that’s the whole point; He saves His people. He goes out of his way to torture an entire nation (as I’ve written about before). His rules for morality and being Good in the eyes of God are a bit of a mess, too; there is specification of when it is OK to kill, there are commandments directly from God to steal from people, and the real ten commandments are odd to the modern reader, to say the least.

But let’s go back even further, to Genesis, and take an internal look at the beginning of the three Abrahamic faiths. Abraham, after whom the faiths were named.

What you have to remember about the story of Abraham is that there was no religion of God before him, whether God interacted with others; it was never formal.

So now we have a guy who heard a voice in his head that he attributed to God telling him to kill his first born son. Whether you believe that having faith in God is the highest calling, you have to admit; if your closest relative, your mother or father, son or daughter, brother or sister, came up to you and said “I’m sorry, the voice in my head that claims to be Jesus said I have to kill you,” your first reaction would generally not be “This is a reasonable statement, and I support you.”

But even then, God stopped him! To steal an example that Richard Dawkins has used in the past, what of the Judge of the people, Jephthah? He vowed to God that if he won in an upcoming battle, he would “sacrifice whatever first came out of his door when he arrived home.” That just seems to be a wildly unintelligent thing, though, because what did he expect would come out of his door? Probably not a cow or a sheep, unless he had pets of that kind, so he was left with only two options… Either it would be his wife or his only child. In the fullness of time, his own daughter comes out, and he rents his shirt in despair–but “Did to her as he vowed to do.” The whole story is recounted in the Book of Judges (11:31-39).

Whether you believe this literally happened or did not, a general Christian will accept that it is in the Bible for a reason. I am no scholar of theology, I could not tell you why this is in the Bible, but to me it indicates that “the God of Life” does not shy from death. A man sacrificed his daughter as the price for having killed hundreds of people, maybe thousands! And yet, as per the Arithmetic of Souls, we are not allowed to experiment on Blastocysts, as they may have souls? Jephthah killed without any reason to believe he was protecting lives; yea, the war he was fighting was to protect God, not people. The scientists who perform stem cell research have strong reason to believe that this may be the biggest medical breakthrough of a generation, of several generations.

To quote Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, “A blastocyst is a collection of some 150 cells. To contrast, the brain of a fly has roughly 100,000 cells… But the rights of this blastocyst has the same rights as a seven year old girl with third degree burns over 80% of her body?”

That seven year old girl will likely die, but not before spending days or months in excruciating pain. Obviously, as per Christianity, we cannot just let her die, perhaps even if we know she has no chance of surviving. But stem cells? There is promising research to show we could regrow her skin. There is promising research that we could give quadriplegics the use of their arms and legs back, the horizon for the benefits of stem cell research is so far off we cannot even begin to imagine what this medical breakthrough could do for the good of the world–and all it would cost is a bundle of cells so small a fly would not even notice them.

One would think, as per the morality (if you can call it that) of the God of the Old Testament, we should be in full support of the death of the blastocysts to improve the lives of His acolytes. Using blastocysts to save lives and reduce suffering surely must count as a lesser evil than Moses’ slaughter of the Jews (Exodus 32:25-29), or the countless slaughters and rapes in the book of Numbers or Judges, that God is a direct party to?

How about God’s own chosen righteous? Lot, who said “Oh, you want to rape my guests? No, they’re men. Rape my daughters instead.” (Genesis 19:6-9) Or the Levite priest who was visiting Gibeah. An old man took him and his concubine in (Oh yes, the priest had a concubine), and people came to the house; “Send out your guest so we can have sex with him!”

The owner shouts back “No, this man is a guest, but my daughter is a virgin, do what you want with her. Also, he has a concubine, go nuts with that too.”

So the daughter and concubine are sent out. On the morning, the priest gets up and prepares to leave. When he opens the door to his host’s house, his concubine is laying on the doorstep. “Get up, time to go.” She does not move, for she was dead.

For good measure, the Levite cuts her body into 12 pieces and sends the parts to the 12 tribes of Israel because… Wait, what the hell? What the ACTUAL F***?! What is going on here? What am I supposed to learn?! (Judges 19:22-29) I think, at least in context, that they are supposed to be angry that the woman was killed by the rapists (that, it should be said, had full permission) when they receive the body parts… But killing someone by accident is not really grounds for serious punishment according to God, for He lets accidental killings happen (Exodus 21:12-13).

Now, all of this has been working up to a point. Most people say we can safely ignore the Old Testament, or take from it symbolic lessons — but the thing is, I do not know what I am supposed to learn. What do I learn from God wrestling Joshua, losing, then dislocating Joshua’s hip? (Genesis 32:22-30)

I think I know why Christians are so bitter towards Muslims. Muslims have had the good sense to call the Bible a holy book, but not make it binding, per se. Muhammad (PBUH, for the purposes of cultural sensitivity) cites the Bible frequently in the Qur’an and Hadith, but cites it as lessons–not as binding. I think Christians are bitter that the Muslims had foresight, and the ability to designate canonical readings of their holy books. The Hadith is a sort of magnifying glass through which you are to read the Qur’an.

I think everything the Christian has ever wanted is the ability to feel superior (something that comes directly from the Old Testament) while not opening themselves to moral criticism. So maybe take a page (ehehehehe) from Islam and designate the Old Testament a book of great origin, but which is not part of the True Gospel. Make the Bible contain only the New Testament, then designate the entirety of the Old Testament as the Tanakh; important reading, but nonbinding. Then you could cherry pick to your heart’s content, and close those gaping holes in your theology that let people like me read through the Old Testament and think with pure horror that people believe the Bible is a book of morality. BAM! So many problems solved.

It would seriously be everything you ever wanted.

A War of Gentlemen

This is a debate between Christopher Hitchens (one of the most prominent atheists in the world until, and indeed after, his death in 2011) and Tony Blair, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1997-2007. The audience was polled as they entered as to their opinion of the resolution at hand (Be it hereby resolved that religion is a force for good in the world), and polled after as to whether their opinion was changed, and to vote on the winner. Whether one side won or not, the true metric of the debate was whose side had the greater sway over the audience.

During the debate, Mr Blair and Mr Hitchens respectfully spoke with each other, had a cross examination and rebuttal, and fielded equal questions from the audience. Not only that, but their rebuttals directly touched upon the points of the other, this is an important distinction.

This debate was hosted in Canada in formal style with formal debate rules.

This is a debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy (who needs no introduction) and Ken Ham, who I believe is one of the most negative forces in the world as far as scientific advancement goes, creator of the Creation Museum in Kentucky, the largest of its kind, as well as the Arc Encounter, a project spending multiple millions of dollars creating a 1:1 scale Noah’s Arc.

During the debate, there are hangups on the most trivial things and the debate ended up devolving into two men giving semi-related speeches trying, almost desperately to make their points, regardless of what the other said.

This debate was hosted in the States, and had rules, but was in no way done in formal style. Who won? Both sides will tell you their side won because they “made their points.” Well of course you can make your points if you completely ignore the presence of the other side.

To be fair, there was some lip service to rebutting the other side–but when the rebuttal stage includes a prepared set of slides, you obviously knew what you were going to say before the other side made their point. That isn’t debate, that is speeches, and while similar on the surface, it doesn’t work like it is supposed to.

The point of rebuttal is your ability to think on your feet, to counter the points of the other. The points you choose to counter say as much as your counter argument itself, and the points you choose to ignore (if not purely for time constraints) say more still. There was no point to the Ham/Nye debate, no resolution was reached, the root question was barely stated.

The Hitchens/Blair debate made points, suggested outcomes, and each man clearly worked with the other instead of ignoring their point.

This reminds me of a 2 hour joke I watched two days ago. It basically starts out “A Theist, an Atheist, and Eric Hovind walk into a bar…” It was supposed to be a debate, but the whole thing was a mess. It was a mess because the theist and atheist both ended up fighting Hovind, who clearly has no idea how to argue against someone who believes in God and Science at the same time. Like, Hovind came right off the rails several times, because how can you believe in God, but not that the Earth is 6000 years old?! That being said, it is a unique person who can be both charismatic (to a degree) and yet get an atheist and a theist to gang up on him. Hovind in this debate was asked to do something he is not used to, and yet he still used his script (his “questions” were from a direct script he has read verbatim, alone, on two of his various shows (Creation Today and Creation Minute) which basically showed that he is unable to think on his feet; if he goes off script, it’s all over). The problem came about one third of the way into the debate where Hovind could no longer break any new ground, and kept trying to bring the debate back to the formal definition of the word “know” against a man who has a DOCTORATE DEGREE in Linguistics. To the theist’s credit, Pastor Bob was incredibly patient with Eric.. Almost like he was trying to teach a lesson to a child who simply could not get it.

I think that goes to the core of what people *think* a debate is in popular culture; to them, it is just people arguing. No, “debate” is a formal thing, it has rules, it has outcomes, there are metrics to judging them… But I have seen far too many “debates” between theists and atheists that added up to two people seeing who could speak more loudly.

We need more Hitchens/Blair debates and fewer Nye/Ham debates. The former helps expand understanding, the latter is an entertainm… Oh shit, I just figured out why people in the US debate that way.

I’ll show myself out.