Doing it Wrong

In a move that surprised no one except for the fact that it took longer than we expected, French writers and satirists were shot and killed this morning in apparent revenge for publishing … Unflattering images of the Prophet Muhammad. I do not believe the PBUH is, in this case, warranted.

The idea behind the ban on depictions of the Prophet Muhammad are from lines stating that no graven image shall be created, out of a theological fear that the image would become more worshiped than God (or, in this case, Allah–though that is only an Arabic word for God in any case). Ironically, this has created a cult of Muhammad where I would argue that as a result of the ban on worshiping him, he has become worshiped more than God Himself. I mean, how does one even draw God?

Actually, to make it even more clear, one can draw Allah without inviting murder upon yourself. I think this article, which I will preface by saying has a piece of artwork that is INCREDIBLY NOT SAFE FOR WORK and WILDLY OFFENSIVE generated displeasure, but exactly zero murders. (Link to said article, provided after DISCLAIMER OF OFFENSIVE NSFW ART was provided. Here you go.)

The point is this; killing people who make fun of your religion of peace is not a good way to go about your life. Worshiping Muhammad more than you would worship God is in direct contravention of so many of your own religious tenets. I realize depictions of Muhammad go against religious tradition, but I don’t know of a direct rule of the Qur’an saying death to anyone who even draws Muhammad (my knowledge of the Qur’an is, at best, sketchy. I will admit to great ignorance of the book, in any case.).

I am not sure why or how people justify this kind of thing. I do not know why “Spreading peace via the sword” doesn’t raise more eyebrows in Islamic extremists. I just don’t understand the world of people who are willing to do these things.

If these killings were not done by Islamic extremists, I apologize for the misplaced indignation… But given the evidence, it is difficult to guess at other possible motivations.

Do not let this act of violence change you. France, don’t let it change you.

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 amĀ 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.