Saturday, January 29, 2011

Becoming Critical Consumers of Information

Perhaps you know people who are constantly falling for scams and hoaxes on the Internet. These people just can't wrap their heads around the idea that, just because you read something in print somewhere, by somebody with a cheerful picture who sounds sincere, doesn't mean that you can trust what that person is saying. Human culture has never before had to deal with so much information, so we have not yet developed norms and attitudes that emphasize the need to be critical consumers of information. In fact, unfortunately, to a great extent, present day culture still often is oriented toward the opposite extreme. We still see it as a virtue to accept claims with little evidence. To challenge a claim would be seen as rude, as well as risky for most people. It requires effort and information, so it is much easier to just passively accept what one is told than to question it. However, if we do not develop these skills then people will continue to fall prey to all manner of urban legends and nonsensical claims which circulate around the Internet with increasing frequency.

I maintain that, once these skills are instilled into the general culture that people's attitudes will necessarily change about religion and politics, at least to some degree. Right now people still hold religious beliefs that were formed at a time when believing claims on shoddy evidence was still looked upon in a charitable light. The same applies to many of the political policies that prevail today. Most were formulated in a time when you could get away with making lots of questionable claims without the average person being able to check the facts very easily.

Once people get used to questioning each new piece of information they receive and looking at claims critically, they are bound to do this, at least to some extent with religion. I know that psychologists speak of cognitive dissonance where people can compartmentalize their thinking so that they they can be skeptical of some things but not others. I also know that the things that young children learn, before they develop critical thinking skills, are often less subject to re-analysis later in life. However, I suspect that neither of these systems are perfect.

Religion is successful right now because they insinuated some of their attitudes and worldviews directly into the culture, so that people would think certain ways automatically, with barely ever a question. Once the culture changes to value the ability to reject bogus arguments and unsubstantiated claims, which is necessary in order to avoid getting conned online these days, then religion is sure to start taking some harder knocks.

I know that, right now, religious people like to crow about how they have survived the onslaught of Enlightenment science and technology. They even boast that religion is resurging, after being pronounced on the way out, a century or two ago. However, like many comforting illusions they believe, I think this fantasy is pretty easily dispelled.

The reality is that Churches have less and less power than ever before. Many of their gains are won in temporary skirmishes, but the long term trend is still away from religious authorities being able to call the shots for how society is run. The prestige of religious figures and their authority is nowhere near as high as it used to be. What we call Roman Catholicism or Episcopalianism today is not what it used to be 100 years ago. Even fundamentalists have been forced to make concession after concession to science and modern scholarship, making their naive literalism increasingly less tenable. Therefore the so-called resurgence is hollow at best.

Of course, populations will continue to grow. One is often told about the increasing number of Muslims or even Mormons who seem to be on the march. But even these groups continue to make concessions to the modern world. Young muslims today do not go for the strictness of the last century. The notion that women shouldn't be able to drive or that they must be covered from head to toe and escorted around by males is something that even the most devout muslims find inconvenient, which means that they will find reasons to work around it theologically.

Religions might keep the same names, but they continue to be massive altered by the modern world. They have been pushed and pushed on issues like gay rights, contraception, abortion, feminism, sex out of wedlock, genetic research, and a whole host of other issues. The Catholic Church, for example has taken a reactionary view on pretty much all of the issues mentioned above, and has been forced to make ignoble retreats on pretty much all of these issues, to some extent, and contribution levels and membership plummet.

Unlike religion, which has a very unsuccessful track-record of making legitimate prophecies, I will not pretend that I can predict what religion will look like in coming decades. However, with accelerating technological change, it is clear that the challenge to it has only just begin, and their premature victory whoops are really just preening over surviving total annihilation, despite massive casualties from the first wave of the assault. Those who think they will restore the place of religion to its former glory are truly living in a fantasy realm.

Like Pat Robertson and George W. Bush they might say, "bring it on", but it is already coming at them every day whether they choose to issue invitations or not. Continued breakthrough in stem cell research, contraception, and abortion technologies, for example, will continue to put them off balance. The potential that HIV vaccines might be developed fairly quickly will mean that they can stoke even less fear about sex. The potential that fossilized cellular life may be found on Mars, for example, will be a significant threat to creationism, despite the verbal gymnastics they may use to apologize for the embarrassing results.

These are just a few of the challenges which the future of religion will face, coupled with an exponentially greater ability to communicate those embarrassing results.

What is the point of bodily resurrection?

I spoke to a man the other day who said that his wive converted to a faith I call Jehovah's Witless (I think that's how it's pronounced anyway ;-)). Now he says she is always getting on him about how he needs to read the Bible and "proclaim the new world", etc, etc. He said that she is always talking about this "new world" where all your relatives are going to rise from their graves. Anyway, the guy was not happy about the way that his wife's newfound beliefs are affecting him, so he asked me for some advice.

One thing I told him was that, if she is going to insist on bodily resurrection, you might want to ask her at what age these individuals will be resurrected. After all, we don't expect their mangled old corpses to come back all worm-eaten and injured, even though this is how the Bible portrayed the resurrection of Jesus, complete with injuries in his palm and side. However, it would be a bit gruesome to see a relative who died in a car wreck all smashed up and bloody. So presumably god would at least clean these people up a bit and restore them to a state of health before they were mortally injured. Otherwise this would really be a zombie freak show.

So far, so good. But why stop there? For example, I pointed out to him that, if I live to 100, I wouldn't want God resurrecting my 100-year-old body. I would want him to resurrect me at 18, or 21 or maybe 25 when I was presumably in better shape. I would imagine that many other people would have similar sentiments. Perhaps one would be okay with even being resurrected looking like you did at 40, but you certainly wouldn't want to be wrinkled and fat and out of breathe trying to gallivant around heaven.

A standard answer that I have heard from religious people in response to this, which they usually make up on the fly, is that "god will let you choose" what age you will be. Perhaps one day you will appear to be 65 externally (only in better health) so you can visit your grandkids, and the next day you will be 17 so you can make out with your high school sweetheart. Perhaps you will some kind of shape shifter going from one form to another instant. This will make it hard for people to recognize you, but I'm sure that religious people will invoke magic again and say people will still instantly know who you are. It's their fantasy, so I'll let them pretend whatever they want.

However, this raises the question of why bodily resurrection is necessary at all, in this case. If you can shift your form at any time, and people know who you are anyway, regardless of what you look like then what the heck do you even need a body for. We have bodies on Earth so that we can move and eat and drink and breathe. Presumably we won't have to worry about such things in heaven. So why should we need a body at all?

As I have long argued, if it were possible for being to exist without any kind of body, then why would having a physical body seem like a good or desirable thing? If you could exist eternally without having to eat or drink, or sleep, or feel pain, all of which are associated with having a body, then why would you want the terrible inconvenience of a body?

More pointedly, if you don't have a body then how can you burn an immaterial being in the fires of hell? Some religions are now trying to say that hell is not literally flames, despite centuries and millennia of teaching that it was quite literal, but rather it is just a psychological torment of being separated from god. However, that would seem to depend upon one's individual psychological disposition. Some people are loners to begin with. Sure God might give you great goodies, but I'm sure there would be plenty of people who would be just fine to go it alone as a spirit, since one would still be free of the need to eat or drink, or worry about health or otherwise support oneself. I'm not convinced that it would be so bad to permanently retired in such a state even if one wasn't is magic candy land with angels and harps. Many people would kill for the opportunity to have some privacy and just being left alone in one's own thoughts and to one's own devices.

Of course, there are many other issues which could be raised about the particulars of the screwball beliefs of the Jehovah's Witless. They seem to believe, assuming that you can pin them down on anything officially, that people will have to live in a physically restored body on the Earth, which will become God's perfect kingdom for 1000 years, and then that non-believers will die, with no-resurrection, simply ceasing to exist. I will note that, in this case, if non-believers are simply extinguished then the observation of Epicurus still holds that Death would be nothing to fear, for when it is, you are not. In other words, when you cease to exist, you won't be around to worry about anything, so it too would not be any kind of terrible anguish. If you were to disappear suddenly, five seconds from now and cease to exist, you wouldn't be around to have any regrets. However, my point was simply that they do not seem to have thought through a number of the particulars, such as the need for a body at all.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Eve was entrapped ... not framed

There is a popular bumper sticker that says "Eve was framed", but it would be more accurate to say that "Eve was entrapped". Perhaps that would be too complicated a sentiment for a bumper sticker, but let's look at the situation.

God apparently wants to test Adam and Eve, but it seems that he has trouble playing fair when it comes to tests. It would have been one thing to just tell Adam and Eve not to do something and then wait a limited period of time to see of they would disobey. It is another thing to allow another one of your craftiest creations to actively attempt to persuade Eve to act otherwise than she would have acted on her own. That is the essence of the modern concept of "entrapment". By one definition it is, "To lure into performing a previously or otherwise uncontemplated illegal act". In modern jursiprudence, entrapment is a valid defense against committing a crime because you were lead by the hand, meaning that it's not a true test of your obedience, but rather, reflects how gullible and easy to manipulate you are.

To wit, Genesis 3 opens with the serpent asking, in perfect Hebrew, presumably, "Did God really say, 'You must not eat from any tree in the garden'?" In other words, the serpent is planting the idea in Eve's mind. Eve's response is to reject the snakes subtle advance, even including the embellishment that God said touching the fruit would cause death (Gen 3:3). In other words, Eve is perfectly content to stay away from the tree and its fruit. So the serpent perssssists, and actively assurse her that she is not going to die. Instead he promises that, if she does, she is going to gain wisdom from it, at which point she is persuaded and eats.This is clearly inducement.

Consider this example. A mother tells her five-year-old daughter, "don't eat these fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies because they are poisonous and you'll die". Then the girl's cool older sister comes in after mom's gone and puts her arm around her kid sister and says, "hey kiddo, why aren't you eating any of these delicious cookies?" The little girl explains, "Mom said they were poisonous and I don't want to die". The older sister assures her, "You're not going to die, silly. Look, I'm eating one now. Mom just doesn't want you to eat cookies because she knows that eating cookies will make you cool like me. So dig in." What kid would be expected to have the adult level of responsible judgment to resist that kind of thing?

Of course, the story gets even more sordid in the case of Genesis, since almost none of what God claimed to Adam and Eve about the trees was actually true. He supposedly put some trees in the middle of the Garden of "Delight" (aka Eden), as per Gen 2:16-17, saying, "Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: 17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." He technically tells them they can eat from ANY tree but the" tree of knowledge of good and evil" (tokogae), and yet in Gen 3:22 he goes back on this saying, "[Man] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever". This would be like the mother saying to her young daughter, "you can eat anything in the kitchen besides these chocolate chip cookies" and then freaking out when her daughter tried to eat s'mores.

Furthermore, from a literal perspective, Gen 3:22 proves that Adam was not immortal. He had not eaten from the tree, so there is no reason to believe he has immortal before eating from the tokogae. And Adam very certainly doesn't die the next day, or next week, or next year, or next century. He lives for 930 years. Dishonest apologists try to claim that this is because to god "a day is like a thousand years", but that is a figurative, non-literal interpretation. These same people claim to be "bible literalists" and say that one can rely upon the "plain meaning" of words in the bible without embellishment. However, that apparently only applies unless there is some kind of difficulty with the text, at which point, anything but the plain meaning of the words are read into the passage to square it with preconceived dogmas.

If the mother, in this example, told her daughter that eating the cookies would cause her to die instantly, and then her daughter died ten years later in a car wreck, nobody could reasonably say, "maybe in her mother's mind, 'instantly' meant something like ten years". Anyone claiming this, at the very least, would have to prove that adam died from slow, 930-year-old apple toxicity, and not for some other reason.

More importantly, one wonders why God withheld a full and fair description of what he actually intended to do to Adam and Eve if they ate from the tree. Most people cast this as "disobedience", but actually, God fails to say, "just don't do it". Instead he just describes a false consequence of eating the fruit as an apparently ineffective deterrent. Then, when Adam and Eve test the claim and find it to be clearly false, God applies all kinds of consequences that he never warned them about. How might the test have turned out differently, had he been upfront with them about the actual consequences? As Voltaire observed, God seems to care a lot more about a piece of fruit than he does about his own children.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Broken Logic of Labeling Arizona Shooter a Liberal Atheist

Right-wingers, which almost automatically means fundamentalist pseudo-christians, have been beside themselves with panic to attempt to dishonestly portray the Arizona assassin, Jared Loughner as being motivated by liberalism, pot-smoking, or atheism, despite the fact that these portrayals make no sense. Religious people often have an easy time believing nonsense like this, because they practice believing even crazier nonsense on a daily basis. The fact is that Jared Loughner was a registered REPUBLICAN, according to voting registration records and a certifiable GUN LUNATIC who was AFRAID of BIG GOVERNMENT. These are verifiable facts, but republicans and the fundamentalist religious extremists who control that party have long felt, as Ronald Reagan so ineloquently put it that "facts are STUPID things". Perhaps, if Loughner had not registered as a republican then one might say that his philosophy is closer to right-winger Libertarianism, but I'm not going to second guess what this person says his party preference is.

Now consider the so-called logic right-wingers are using here. They insist, in spite of the facts, that Loughner was a "liberal". Then why would he kill liberals. It wasn't liberals who hated Giffords. It was right-wingers. Sarah Palin was the one who put the graphic of gun crosshairs on Giffords specifically, on her website. It was Giffords opponents who put Giffords image on paper gun targets and invited republican supporters to come out to the gun range and shoot at those targets. It was republicans who said, "if ballots don't work, bullets will". If Loughner was a liberal then he shouldn't have been sympathetic to all of this. What about being a "liberal" should have motivated Loughner to want to assassinate one of the few liberal politicians in his state when there were plenty of right-wing extremists throughout Arizona? Indeed it would be hard to find a few other liberals in the heavily republican enclave of Arizona.

So how do republicans conclude that he was a "liberal" and therefore falsely reason that liberalism is to blame for his actions? They say that he read Mein Kampf and The Communist Manifesto. Of course, most educated people would have trouble understanding why right-wingers think that that the ultra-rightwing writings of Adolf Hitler would be "left-wing", but you have to understand that in the semi-literate world of republicanism, they consider Hitler a "socialist", despite the fact that Hitler was at war with communists, outlawed trade unions and despised socialists. As far as reading the Communist Manifesto, reading it does not make you a liberal. Marx and Engels say, in the Manifesto, that they borrowed basic principles of Communism from the Christian bible. From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs comes from the New Testament book of Acts., for example. Christianity, in its original form, was the socialism that right-wingers hate so much.

Ah, but they claim Loughner was an atheist. As some honest right-wingers have admitted, you are not absolutely required to be a fundamentalist christian to be a republican. There are republicans who are atheists. As I have pointed out there are also right-wing Libertarians, who tend to be more religiously skeptical and favor things like marijuana use. However, for this point to really matter we have to believe that there was anything about atheism that would make Loughner do what he did. An atheist who did not believe that he gets forgiven and admitted to eternal Candyland for saying "I wuv u Jebus" one second before death, would be unlikely to throw away his one and only life like this. Atheists might not believe that god is watching them, but they certainly believe that other people are watching them, and, given that there is no conceivable way that he could have gotten away with this crime and not been subject to either the death penalty or lengthy prison, he was not acting as a atheist.

Right wingers have tried to compare this guy to the Columbine kids, but they actually killed themselves. That might be more consistent with nihilism. Instead, this guy was indiscriminate in his choice of targets.

If Loughner was influenced by anything he was influenced mainly by right-wing ideologies like fascism and libertarianism, which caused him to lash out primarily at liberals. It is clear that his mind was not functioning well to begin with, so it is likely that he would have been highly susceptible to the not-so0-subtle assassination rhetoric that rightwingers have used almost constantly, when they call for armed insurrection against their own countrymen and "2nd amendment remedies" when they lose at the ballot box, as they lost to Giffords.