Saturday, October 17, 2009

Playing the detective

When I was a child, from time to time, I'd play a game with other children in the neighbourhood called murder in the dark. We'd draw lots and one person would be nominated the murderer. The aim of the game was to find out who the murder was. We'd look at the evidence, some of which was deliberately falsified. We'd use our intuition and we'd try to find out.

There were no prizes for getting it right. Winning was an end in itself. There was no need for punishment for those who got it wrong.

Now imaging the following variation on the game:
* You've got to find the truth
* Everyone has to play
* Not everyone will be told that they are playing
* Evidence will be sparse.
* Those that don't get the correct answer will be punished
* The punishment will be torture
* The torture will be be eternal.

Well, that's the Christian game as laid out in the gospels. Jesus is the son if God. If you don't realise this then you're doomed. And if you grew up in China 1000 years ago you'd have never heard of Jesus, tough luck.

No-one sets out to deliberately believe a lie. So in that respect all beliefs are sincere. Though people aren't always truthful when they express them. To punish someone for believing something that is false is utterly unethical. If people don't believe in God, then the blame would have to go to God for not providing enough evidence.

In John, chapter 6, Jesus tells people that they should eat his flesh and drink his blood. Understandably many people are appalled at this and we're told From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.. The responsibility for this has to be with Jesus. An all knowing god would be aware that after asking people to indulge in some form of ritualised cannibalism, plenty of sincere, good people will walk away. If they loose out on some reward because of it, then I'd have to say God is very unfair and if they get punished, then God really is malicious.

If someone puts two glasses in front of me and asks me to choose one, then I can show that I have free-will and can choose either one. I can also demonstrate that I can change my mind. On the other hand, I don't have quite the same conscious control over my beliefs. If someone asks me to believe for the next half hour that there are invisible fairies living in my garden. Then, if I'm being honest, I'd have to tell them that I can't make myself believe it. On the other hand I could certainly tell them that I'm prepared to look at new evidence.

If you try to bribe someone to believe the truth, you'll probably fail. You may be successful in getting people to feel that they would like to believe. On the other hand, it is much more easy to bribe people lie and to hide doubts.

Hell does get air-brushed out by some modern Christians, some may even claim that it does not exist, but what are very real are the threats of eternal torture from Jesus. Here is a quote from JC, taken from Luke: But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him..

Friday, May 29, 2009

Child abuse: time to read the Bible

Over the past few weeks, following on from the release of the Ryan report into child abuse by members of religious orders there has been a lot of clergy bashing in the Irish media. For what it's worth here is my perspective:

Growing up in Ireland in the 1980's, I frequently had interaction with catholic priests and nuns. Every single one that I met was pleasant, kind and I'm convinced that all were sincere in their intentions. They had a strong sense of right and wrong and wanted to do what was right. Invariably they wanted to give me 'the gift of faith'. As a child I believed what I was told.

I am now aware that many children Ireland did not have such a pleasant experience with priests and nuns. This is particularly so for the unfortunate children in the industrial schools. Those children were defenseless and had no-one to stand up for them. I was absolutely not aware of the abuse that was going on. However I do still remember the screams of boys who were beaten by the head-master of my school. His office was a scary place to be sent. He had a cane that he used on the naughty boys and although my class-room was a long way from the office, the sound of the strikes were very loud. The screams from the young boys were even louder.

I remember one particular day when I was about seven hearing a particularly nasty beating, with some piercing screams. The whole class flinched with the sound of each blow. Our teacher saw how upset we were and tried to comfort us, telling us only very naughty boys got the cane. The head-master was in fact her husband.

Today we would call that sort of thing child-abuse. Then it was called discipline. It reminds me of the way alpha male gorillas treat the young. If he ever sees their actions as questioning his dominant position, then they are beaten.

By the time I had reached secondary school, corporal punishment had been outlawed in Ireland, though for one of my teachers, the old habit died hard. If we hadn't remembered our lines of poetry we'd get a slap on the hand from a ruler. It was a mixed school and he didn't hit the girls. For the same offence, they'd have to write out 50 lines. There was a stand-off one day when one girl refused to do the 50 lines. She said she'd prefer to get the hit instead. The English teacher refused.

Another day the same English teacher slapped a boy at the back of the class. The lad asked what that was for. The reply was that it was to save him coming down later. In a really strange way I think it was a bonding moment between the boy and the teacher. There was humour in the violence.

My parents did warn me about talking to strangers. There was a fear of child abductions. Such events got huge coverage in the media, but in fact were very rare. It seems from the Ryan report that abuse by catholic clergy was much more common. The priests were the ones I should have been watching out for. I wasn't really in danger from strangers as I cycled to mass as a young alter-boy. The real danger existed once I entered the sacristy. Though as I said, to me, the priests that I met were always only ever kind.

The Ryan Report catalogues endemic abuse in Catholic run institutions. For Christians who want to try to understand it, I think a good place to start is the bible. In the old testament, God frequently advocates ethnic cleansing of the Amalekites. He wants their men, women, children and infants all slaughtered. Indeed Kind David is awarded his thrown because of his particularly thorough butchering.

But once they are dead, God leaves them alone. Then we come to the new testament where Jesus introduces hell and it's eternal flames. I have read of some particularly nasty people who choose to inflict pain on others, but even in Abu Ghraib prison, under both the Hussein and Bush regimes, the torture sessions would eventually come to and end though sometimes with death. There is some compassion which eventually kicks in. People weren't kept alive so that they would have 40 years of torture.

On the other hand Jesus promises ( or threatens ) eternal torture. Under some circumstances pardons are available. But that fact remains JC advocates the use of the eternal flames of hell for all sorts of minor crimes, such as calling someone a fool. If we teach children that Jesus should be held up as an example of virtue and he should be our moral guide, then the abuse that happened in Catholic institutions can be seen as very mild relative to what Christ has in store. The problem is that people used the Bible as a source of a moral guide which justifies horific eternal torture. The book has not served us well. Let's end the myth that Christ should be held up as an example of virtue.

I know that Hitler sought the slaughter of innocent men, women and children. So I make a moral judgement on him. I don't need to learn any more. I don't need to read his speeches to give him a second chance to see if in fact he has some great moral advice to give. He was a nasty ethnic cleanser. I don't hold him in high esteem. The same could be said for the old testament god. He advocated the slaughter of Amalekite children, I don't need to know anything else about him. I've made up my mind. Similarly for Jesus. He promotes the idea of eternal torture. That is morally reprehensible. There may indeed be some lines in the new testament which I would agree with. However the fact remains that much of what Jesus teaches is unethical.

One counter argument would be that the bible does contain some of the word of God, but it was in fact written by men. So it is not absolutely reliable. In some cases in the Gospels, Jesus may be quoted out of context or indeed the quotes may be entirely made up and that his real message is of love, forgiveness and compassion. But then if we say the bible is unreliable, we run into the problem that we don't know which bits are to be trusted. When it makes the extra-ordinary claim that JC is the product of a virgin birth, then we have to remind ourselves that the source of the information is a book which we've deemed to be unreliable.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who said what: religious quotes quiz

Do you know your religious quotes? Why not try the simple quiz below.

Question 1: who said the following:
Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 2: who said the following:
It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 3: who said the following:
To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 4: who said the following:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 5: who said the following:
I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 6: who said the following:
Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 7: who said the following:
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 8: who said the following:
If people do not recognize me and it doesn't bother me, am I not a Superior Man?
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 9: who said the following:
The best among you are those who are best to their wives.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

Question 10: who said the following:
Anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Choose one of the following answers:
(i) Buddha
(ii) Confucius
(iii) Jesus
(iv) Muhammad

The answers are in the first comment below.

If you want to try this quiz on facebook, click here

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Unbelievable Campaign

The Humanist Association of Ireland are running ads on the Dart ( Dublin commuter trains) with the title 'Unbelievable'. The message it contains is: “Did you know that you must take a religious oath in order to become a judge – or the president – in Ireland?”

It is the start of a campaign to end discrimination against non-religious people and to have a separation of church and state in Ireland. Ultimately they wish to get the Irish constitution changed so that references to God and religion will be removed.

The ads on the Dart were inspired by the Atheist Bus campaign which started in London.

Christian Morality

I've often heard it said that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Some people I know who say they don't really believe in any particular religion claim that Christianity has great moral advice to give. Let's have a look at a few of the things Christ said, say starting with the Gospel of Matthew:

Matthew 5:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Also in Matthew 5:
anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell.

and then:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matt 6

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matt 8
Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.

One of the strangest teachings of Christ is about hell. It was barely ever mentioned in the Old Testament, but in the new pops up frequently. The two moral questions it raises are:
Is it moral for a God to create hell and punish people he says he loves for all eternity?
Even if hell as described in the New Testament does not exist, is it moral for God to threaten people with torture in hell?

Mathew 3:
JC says: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' Sounds like a line a dodgy salesman might use.

Matthew 1 mentions the geneology of JC, with 27 generations from David to Joseph.
Luke list out the geneology with a completely different set of names, with 41 generations from David to Joseph. There is almost no overlap in the two list of names. Thus at least one of them has to be false.

In Matthew 1, speaking of Joseph it mentions: but he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. Suggesting that Mary and Joseph had a normal sex life after JC was born. I wonder why so many Catholics ignore that line and still refer to Mary as a virgin.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Summary of Christianity

For those not familiar with Christianity here is a quick summary:

There exists a supernatural being who created the world and also the after-life: heaven and hell. He decides which ones of us should end up where. He arranged for his son to be dead for three days and as result has chosen to change the rules about who can avoid hell. Under some circumstances pardons will be granted. Thus all humanity should be grateful to his son. In remembrance of his son being dead for three days, we should have a ceremony which has as a centre piece some ritualistic cannibalism.

The main supernatural being gave us a book of his word. It is known as the Bible and is divided into two parts, the Old and the New. In the Old the vengeful God will punish wrong doings in your life and the lives of your descendants.

In the New part (2000 years old) it says that the vengeful God may punish you for all eternity for your transgressions. Further, the God who created hell for humans loves humans but never the less still keeps a threat of the fires of hell hanging over everyone.

When it comes to divine justice, God will be judge, jury and executioner in the Old testament. In the New, with the introduction of hell, he may also become your eternal torturer.

Christians should devote their lives to praising God.

The son, while he was on earth has past on some wisdom such as the following from Matthew, chapter 5:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

An A on the Lapel

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of Atheism

Years ago I remember seeing Mother Teresa being interviewed on Irish television by Gay Byrne. She was asked if she had any doubts. Her answer was a blunt 'no'. However more recently I've read some letters she wrote when being more honest in which she mentioned that when she prayed there was no response, there was just a disappointing silence. It seems to me that she was more of an atheist than agnostic. Such an utter contrast to the position she declared in public.
But she is not alone by any means.

In Roman time, politicians would pretend to believe in the Roman gods, they thought it would help to get votes. The practice continues.

Throughout modern society people publicly profess their religious faith. Some wear religious clothes or emblems. In churches people repeat their creed aloud for all to hear. Many agnostics and atheists keep their lack of faith silent, lest they offend. As a result, when religious people are loosing their faith, they think they are much more alone then they actually are.

It really would be helpful if non-believers could be more public. So recommend that we wear the letter 'A' lapel pin. The motivation is not to seek persecution nor to insult religious folks, but rather to show solidarity with those who are trying to free themselves of religion. If you'd like one, then get your's here..

The idea behind wearing the 'A', is just to make a public statement that the wearer is an atheist, agnostic or non-religious person. It will persuade others who feel the road away from religion is a lonely one that in fact they are far from alone. It will also help to show religious people that atheists are happy, normal people, who are capable of being kind, generous and compassionate.

Atheists are just like ordinary people, except that when they think about moral or ethical issues, then tend not to pay too much attention to bronze age texts. They also tend to think a bit more for themselves, rather than just accept what they are told. In all the studies that I have read about there is a negative correlation between religiousness and eduction level or intelligence, though surprisingly there do seem to be some reasonably intelligent people who publicly proclaim their religious faith.

For me, if someone is intelligent, it means that they can think clearly, but it doesn't mean that they always do. For example Admiral Yamamoto had a brilliant military brain and was very effective. However, in spite of the lack of evidence, he still believed that the Japanese imperial family was divine.

How can some ridiculous belief persist for generations?

If you get a child, surround him by people who all believe some nonsense, such as in reformed pastafarianism then you can build up a strong association in his brain between the flying spaghetti monster and all things good. Then when those children grow up they'll insist on bring up their own children as pastafarians and so the nonsense propogates from one generation onto the next.

For the beliefs to persist into adulthood the following will help:
  • Tell people they will be rewarded for believing
  • Encourage people to fear an after-life if the don't believe.
  • Build up a form of condescending pity for non-believers
  • Control the eduction system, which makes certain that the question of faith is not presented in any balanced or objective manner, but rather it works very hard to indoctrinate
  • Ask people to frequently, publicly profess their faith.
  • Have lots of public demonstrations of faith.
  • Have a good public relations machine that will associate the faith with charity works.

When faith has grown large enough to have significant political power, criticism of the faith (blasphemy) can become a crime.

Then the most extreme of all, as in Islam, those who loose faith are killed. Currently apostasy is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Mauritania and the Comoros. One question we can ask is, why would an Imam hate someone who has lost his faith sufficiently so that he wants that person killed? In a strange way hatred is a form of respect. It is very difficult to hate something that is pathetic and weak. Very often hatred comes out of fear or jealousy. For Imams and people of all faith who have devoted their lives to religion there is a very real fear that people around them and indeed even they themselves might loose their faith. Their whole lives are based on people continuing to believe in fairy-tales. One enormous fear is that everyone will stand up and together shout "The emporer's got no clothes". For an Imam, if their community loose faith, then they are left in an empty mosque and their position in society is gone. If they themselves loose faith, then it is even worse, they are left in no-man's land. Religious organisations are full of closet agnostics, without the courage to come out.