Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Tribute: Saving Private Ryan

For those of you who have not seen the movie Saving Private Ryan, it is one of the most gruesome, vivid war movies of all time. I cannot do it justice in words, it is a must see. In fact, if you plan on seeing it, feel free to skip this post so as not to give it away. But a basic summary of the plot would make the below video more meaningful.

The setting is World War II, and the Ryan family has four brothers who are soldiers in war. Three of them die within days of each other. In an attempt to prevent Mrs. Ryan (whose husband is also deceased) from losing all of her children in the conflict, the Secretary of War orders Captain Miller and his team to locate the remaining brother, Private James Ryan, and send him home. What follows is an intense, violent, trying, heart-wrenching trek through enemy territory which claims the lives of several of Miller's men. Scene after scene after scene features intense fighting, emotional breakdowns, and fierce arguments as the men begin to question the validity of a mission which claims many lives to save just one. Eventually, they find Ryan and order him to return with them to base, but he refuses. He has been stationed a post and ordered to hold the bridge at all costs, and cannot in good conscience abandon his fellow soldiers to save his own hide. This video depicts the end of that battle to hold the bridge.

Earn it. So many men went through such trial and hardship, suffering and pain, gave their lives, made the ultimate sacrifice to save the life of this one man. An with his dying breath, Captain Miller implores Private Ryan to earn that sacrifice. The final scene is an elderly James Ryan sobbing at the grave of Captain Miller, his family around him, questioning whether or not he has done enough to pay them back, begging his wife to tell him he is a good man. How can he ever, possibly, repay that debt?

But this movie is not about that one man. It is about us. We are Private Ryan. In real life, there was no Private Ryan (although there were 4 Niland brothers, two of which died on D-Day and third was believed dead but later liberated from a POW camp). In real life, soldiers did not storm those beaches, raid those bunkers, go through all the hell they did for one man: they did it for each of us. They did it not so they could improve their lives, but so their children and grandchildren could live in a safer, freer world. We are Private Ryan, and with their dying breath those soldiers plead us to earn that sacrifice.

So...have you earned it? Will you earn it? Can we earn it? We can never "level the score", or fully pay back our debt to these men. But we can lead happy, fulfilling lives, and use the freedom these men have granted us to make the world a better place. We can pay it forward by sacrificing for others with the same selflessness with which they sacrificed for us. We can teach our children to earn it too. And finally, if nothing else, we can take some time out of our otherwise self-absorbed lives to remember those who served and acknowledge what they did for us. Happy Memorial Day, everyone.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

My Thoughts on Water Boarding and Torture

Firstly, water boarding is torture. I don’t need to have been water boarded to know that. By pouring water down your nose and keeping your mouth shut, it plays on your instinctual fear of drowning by simulating what it would feel like being hundreds of feet below water. It is extremely uncomfortable and terrifying, look up a video on Youtube if you don’t believe me. But even if it were not, the level of pain or discomfort the suspect is being put through is irrelevant, so long as any exists. The principle is the same: putting somebody through any level of pain or discomfort or terror in order to convince him to do something, or answer your questions, or reveal information. That is torture. Water boarding does that, and thus water boarding is torture.

A separate, more meaningful question would be “can torture ever be justified?” What if it’s done to save lives, specifically the lives of American servicemen or citizens. I view this as a perfect example of the “do the ends justify the means” question I rose a couple weeks ago. And while the last post argued that there can be situations in which the ends do justify the means, I do not believe torture is one of those situations. In that post I identified three questions which must be considered in determining if the ends justify the means:

  1. How important is it that the ends be met? For the ends to justify the means, the ends must be of such dire importance that not achieving them would be an even greater ethical offense than the means used to achieve them. 
  2. How direct is the link between the means and the ends? One must have no reasonable doubt that the means will directly and infallibly lead to the ends.
  3. Finally, are there any alternate, less unethical means which would obtain the same ends? The means cannot be justified if ethically superior means are available. 
In the case of  torture, the means are quite ghastly and immoral. In order to satiate question number one, the ends must be extremely dire: saving lives, solidifying national security, saving the nation, etc. These circumstances are rare, but they do exist. The ends of saving many lives, or even just one life, outweigh the means of torturing one person. In these circumstances, the first condition is met.

But the other questions are where this practice becomes far less cut and dry. In accordance with the second question, we must be certain that the person being tortured actually knows something that could help us, and it’s tough to be sure of that. Even if the person does know something, we must determine whether that information will help us sufficiently enough to obtain our ends. Again, there is usually no way of ensuring this. We must also verify that anything the prisoner does reveal is true, and not merely a lie to end the torture. How can one ever discern between a coerced lie and the coerced truth, without knowing what the truth is? And Thirdly, there must be no alternative courses of military action likely to attain the same objective, which is not always true either.

Therefore, I am opposed to torture, and opposed to water boarding. If there were a button in front of me, and I knew for absolute certain that pushing this button would torture a terrorist and, in exchange, save the life of one US soldier, I would push it in an instant. But that's not the choice we're faced with. If I knew that pushing this button would torture a terrorist and, in exchange, maybe provide information that might be true which might help us save lives, I would not push the button. And that is a far more accurate moral equivalent.

Why the NFL lockout is partially the government's fault

Our Congress, Hard at Work

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Funny

In the midst of my religion week last week, I forgot to do a Friday Funny. And while the Supreme Court on the Death Penalty video I posted the other day might count for one, it wasn't posted on a Friday, and I have no shortage of funny things to post. So you guys get more laughs today! This one's a favorite from Monty Python's Life of Brian, which observant readers may find rivals the Onion for most prolific source of funny videos on my blog. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Overuse of the word Homophobia

phobia - (n) - a persistent, irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that leads to a compelling desire to avoid it.

There are several things things I am afraid of. For instance, I have a moderate fear of heights. I get a bit jittery when I cross over a bridge driving at high speeds, worried the driver will sneeze and somehow jerk the wheel and send us plummeting to our death. When I was a kid, I used to be petrified of bumblebees. I understand fear. However, I am not and never have been morally opposed to any of these things. I would never want to outlaw being high up, or driving over a bridge, etc. These are perfectly reasonable activities, and I do not find them objectionable.

There are, however, many things which I am morally opposed to or disagree with. For instance, murder. Or theft. Or cheating on a test in high school. These are things I do not tolerate, and things I think should be illegal (they all are, thankfully). But they are not necessarily things I am afraid of. I do not fear the act of cheating on a test. In fact, I see it every day. It is quite commonplace and poses no danger to me, so it would be silly for me to fear it.

Thus, it appears obvious to me, and I would imagine to most people, that there is a huge difference between having a moral objection to an activity and being afraid of that activity. And there is an even greater distinction between being morally opposed to something and having a phobia of that something. So it annoys me to no end when a liberal accuses anybody who has a moral objection to homosexuality as being "homophobic."

The practice is widespread. If you ask a typical liberal what are the largest social problems facing America today, "homophobia" will be right in there with racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. But one of these things is not like the other. If democrats feel these people are intolerant of homosexuals, that's fine, and in some instances they are correct: homosexist may be a more suitable term, or even just anti-gay. But a phobia of a group of people or the activities they partake in is very different from that line of view. In fact, it's possible to be a homophobic who supports gay marriage and full gay rights, but the thought of it just scares the ba'jeezus out of him! Very many people, many polls put it at over half the country, oppose gay marriage. It is absurd to claim that half the country has "a compelling, irrational fear" of homosexuality, just as it would be absurd to claim that over half the country has arachnophobia or other common phobias. These are mental disorders, not political opinions.

This represents a larger, more troublesome trend within the democratic party. When Republicans encounter someone who disagrees, their first instinct is to tell them why they're wrong. But when Democrats encounter someone who disagrees, their first instinct is to discover what is wrong with them. Because the democrats have taken up the mantle of the "intellectual" or "progressive" party, they often convince themselves that anybody who disagrees with them must not be as intelligent or rational as they are. We see this when they label everyone who opposes affirmative action as racist, or everyone who opposes forced maternity leave coverage as sexist, or everyone who opposes evolution or global warming as ignorant and uninformed. We saw it most recently in the healthcare debate, when Democrats (led most noticeably by president Obama in his September 09 address to the nation) blamed overwhelming public opposition to ObamaCare squarely on Republican "misinformation" or "fear-mongering". No way was it because people opposed what they were trying to do, it was because people just couldn't understand what they were trying to do! It's as if it's impossible for Obama to recognize that reasonable, informed, intelligent people can disagree with his liberal agenda. By labeling everyone who opposes homosexuality, gay marriage, or similar causes as homophobic, Democrats insinuate that they only disagree because they have an irrational fear, not because they have a rational argument.

I spent much of yesterday's post on homosexuality talking about why traditional republicans are wrong to treat LGBT's differently under the law others. But many democrats also err in attacking those republicans as "homophobic" when most are nothing of the sort. Unless they can medically confirm that the reason the individual opposes homosexuality is because he has a persistent, driving fear of it, they should use a more accurate insult. Or, better yet, attack his argument instead of disparaging his person.

Apparently the Supreme Court disagrees with me on the death penalty

I love The Onion.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Thoughts on Gay Marriage and Homosexuality

I am not gay. I am also not a scientist. For these reasons, I cannot definitively know for certain whether being homosexual is a choice or a birth trait. With that said, I highly suspect that it is a birth trait, because so many people are gay that it seems far too pervasive to be a product of social pressures. Why would anybody choose to be gay when there is such a negative social whiplash for being so? Also, I sure as hell never made a choice; I knew from as soon as I hit puberty that I definitely liked girls, and was repulsed by the thought of sexual relations with a man. Those urges were not a consequence of my environment, or my parents, or any other factor than my DNA. If everybody was straight at birth and simply chose to do otherwise, wouldn’t every other male feel the same urges (and the same repulsion to homosexuality) that I did? Since not everybody is repulsed by this, I'm forced to assume not everybody shares my inherent sexuality. Besides, every gay person I’ve ever met assures me that they were born this way, that they never made a “decision”, that it was just part of who they are. Who the hell am I to tell them otherwise? So while I don’t know how it is that some people are gay, I strongly suspect they are gay from birth.

However, from a government perspective, however, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a choice or not: gay people must get full and equal treatment under the law as any other person. Period. End of discussion. Homosexuality harms nobody. That it is against some people's religion is fine; those people may practice their religion and don't have to engage in it. But they must have absolutely zero say in how other people live their lives. Equal treatment for all means equal treatment for all. For this reason, I would prefer a system with legalized gay marriage in addition to legalized straight marriage to a system that only legalizes straight marriage. 

However, in the current government definition, I do not support gay marriage. This is because, by this definition, I do not support straight marriage either. I don't think the government should have anything to do with the marriage industry. It should be entirely none of it's concern to determine who is or isn't allowed to wed. If a private religious body wants to pronounce you "married", that's fine. If you want to call yourselves "married" that's fine. If you aren't religious and don't care what you're called, but you and 4 other guys wanna live together and have crazy, kinky sex, that's fine too. I don't care. That's not my business. And it's not the government's business either. Economically, if two people would like to enter into a contractual agreement regarding the unification of their finances, they may do so, and they may structure the framework of such a contract however they see fit. But the government shouldn't be crafting a one-size fits all arrangement and then giving the people who qualify for that arrangement special privileges, for just the same reason they shouldn't be discriminating against gays: equality under the law.

The reason many people balk at my suggestion is that currently, "familes" or "households" recieve certain tax breaks, engineered largely by republicans in an effort to promote stronger families. Personally, I think that's a wonderful objective. But not everybody agrees, especially those who don't fit the mold of what constitutes a family. If you give special perks to families, you have to define what is a family and what is not, and that's not right. What is a family? What about two people of the same sex living together? Or transgender people? What if you grandparents live with you, are they part of your family? It is common for Latino or South Asian families to live with dozens of extended family members in the same home. Are they all the same family? What of polygamous families? Some cultures believe a man may have several wives, and they're all part of the same loving family. Who are we to tell them they're not allowed to do that? That would be a violation of the freedom of religion, would it not? When the government tries to give special perks to any one group over another, whether that group is a racial minority, an economic class, or a family, problems happen. Once again, equality under the law means equality under the law, and any tax law that treats "families" or "married" couples differently than others breaks from that principle.

Today, homosexuals rightly complain that domestic unions do not offer the same government benefits as do marriages. And until my option becomes a politically viable alternative, I'll support their quest for gay marriage legalization. But the best solution is not to legalize gay marriage, it's to abandon the practice of government licensed marriage in the first place, and allow people to decide for themselves who is or isn't married. This is the ultimate compromise, because everybody wins. Gays couples receive full equality under the law as straight couples, and can easily find a local church which will marry them. Anti-gay marriage folks needn't recognize them as married if they don't want to, they're entitled to their own opinion. The government stays neutral on the matter. Freedom means people oughta be able to do as they please, without needing the government’s permission. And like most other licenses, marriage licenses are an impediment to that freedom.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Championship Caliber Performances

(Note: I wrote the below paper for my school newspaper. It being my final week of High School, I thought it was a fitting tribute to the trials and tribulations we go through. Enjoy!)

The date is December 31st, 1967, and it is really cold. It is -20 degrees Fahrenheit in Green Bay, Wisconsin, -48 with the wind chill, and the Packers and Cowboys are locked in one of the most epic showdowns in NFL history. It’s so cold that the referee’s whistle froze to his mouth on the first play, bloodying his lip and forcing him to shout out commands with no whistle the rest of the game. It’s so cold that an elderly fan died of exposure at halftime. It’s so cold that they had to cancel the band’s performance at halftime. But the Packers don’t mind; on Vince Lombardi’s orders, they took the field in short sleeves with no gloves to intimidate their warm-climate opponents. The infamous “frozen tundra” of Lambeau is hard as concrete, and every player on the field has cuts all over his body from meeting it. Hall of Fame QB Bart Starr’s Packers are down 17-14. They have the ball on Cowboys 1 yard line, with 16 seconds left and no timeouts remaining. Although a field goal would tie the game, Lombardi wants to send the fans home before conditions worsen with nightfall, and orders his team to go for it. As guard Jerry Kramer cleared the way for a handoff, Starr decides instead to take it himself and scores the winning touchdown, sending the Packers to an unprecedented third consecutive NFL Championship.
            The date is February 12th, 2010, and it is really cold. There has been over four feet of snow in West Chester over the past week, and you are trudging through all of it to get to school. Your high school forces you to park a half mile away each morning so that they may “preserve nature” by paving over a hill instead of paving over a marsh. But you’ll be darned if that makes you late to class. You heroically trek through the blustering winds and frigid air, fighting through frostbite, oversized boots, and the occasional mountain lion to make it to homeroom on time.
            The date is October 19th, 2004, and Curt Schilling doesn’t feel like he can perform. The tendon sheath on his right ankle was torn a few weeks prior, and he hasn’t been able to pitch effectively since. But his Red Sox are down three games to two in the ALCS against their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, and they need Schilling to carry his team. After undergoing repeated medical procedures to stabilize the ankle, Schilling tears open the stitches while pitching, soaking his sock in blood--but still goes on to pitch seven innings of one run ball to earn the win. His Red Sox would win the next game, becoming the first team in MLB history to overcome a three game deficit in the playoffs, and later go on to win their first World Series in 86 years.
            The date is October 19th, 2010, and you don’t feel like you can perform. Autumn has brought with it the dreaded fall allergy season, and you have been hit hard. Sneezing, coughing, phlegm spewing everywhere: you’re not a pretty site. It’s also quarterly season, and you have important projects and tests pouring in from every subject. Not to mention all that crap you have to find time for after school today. You’re overwhelmed, stressed, cold, sick, hungry, fatigued, physically and mentally worn down, and you still have to find a way to memorize those polyatomic ions for the quiz next period. But you’re about to show Mr. Gellner a thing or two about efficiency. So you blow your nose, hack up a loogey, and cram like your grade depended on it (because it does). And you will ace that chem quiz, because you put the “stud” in student, the “class” in classroom, and the “pro” in procrastination. That’s why they pay you the big bucks…
            Truth is, high school can be pretty challenging, yet students find ways to perform in crunch time every day. So here’s to you, student body. Rustin should be proud to have you grace its Halls of Fame.

Amen to That

Monday, May 23, 2011

Injustice System

This is infuriating. That marijuana is illegal is absurd in the first place (I'll get to that later). Sentences like this destroy far more lives than a little pot ever did.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Quotes of the Week: 5/22 to 5/29

“My advice to you is get married: if you find a good wife you'll be happy; if not, you'll become a philosopher.” – Socrates

“When you are born, you are crying, and the people around you are smiling. Live your life so that when you die, you are smiling, and the people around you are crying.” - Unknown

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you've got it made.” - Unknown

God Moments

Although I said last night's post would be the last of the religion week, in reading it over again I feel it was lacking something. It was a very deep, with long words and complicated sentence structure. Some readers may have enjoyed that style, but there are perhaps more effective ways to convey God's beauty and majesty.  Emotion and feeling can be just as powerful a means of knowing as can reason and logic. So rather than trying to use high brow language to dissect the meaning of the "mystic emotion", I'll instead try to convey that emotion.

I'd like you to look out your window right now. I know not what you see, but when I do it I see my front yard. Every day I pass by that front yard without giving it a second glance. I don't stop to notice the millions of leaves on the trees lining my road, or the billions of blades of grass in my yard and my neighbors yards. I don't notice the worms, flies, insects, bugs, squirrels, rabbits, or other animals which inhabit those lawns. Each of those leaves, grass, and organisms are broken down even further into parts, which are broken into cells, which are broken into atoms. There is a specific organization, an immaculate order, to everything. Even the non-living things are fascinatingly intricate. The pavement on my driveway consists of bits and pieces of thousands of rocks from all over the world. The clouds above have trillions of little water droplets, each with innumerable little hydrogen and oxygen atoms. There is more that exists in your field of vision each time you casually glance out the window than you could ever fully appreciate if you studied it for a million years. Turn your gaze inwards, and examine each and every object in your house, each specially crafted tool for any purpose. You'll find you have matter from all over the world, which wound up in your dwelling through an enormously complex sequence of events. And this is just in and around your house. Now think of all the places you've been in your life, and all the things you've ever seen, and multiply this quantity by that figure. And this is just sight! Think of every song you've ever heard, and know that each was produced by many specially and intricately crafted instruments, with many musicians with many hours of training. Every bird you've ever heard chirp, every tiny, unnoticed rumble of the refrigerator. Why stop at sound? Ponder every smell, or taste, sensation on your skin that you've ever sensed in the entirety of your life. Ponder, if you can, the summation of every component of anything you have ever perceived. This is an incalculable, infinite sum, yet this figure is infinitesimal when compared to all of existence! You are but one of over 6 billion people on earth right now, each with an equally immense perception (depending on their age). Speaking of age, this counts only those humans who are presently alive, to say nothing of every human that has ever lived. Time is infinite. And why stop with humans? Each animal, going back to the beginnings of the earth, has seen and heard and smelled and felt an equally long list of other things. The beginning of the earth was at least 4 and a half billion years ago. Each of those years had 365.2422 days, each day had 24 hours which had 60 minutes which had 60 seconds, and in each of these seconds there was an infinitely larger existence than you could ever possibly perceive in a lifetime. And why stop at Earth? The earth is only 1/9th of the planets in this one solar system, which is a millionth at most of all the solar systems in the galaxy, which is another millionth at most of all the galaxies in the universe, and scientists are beginning to suspect alternate universes. Space, like time, is infinite. Even these simple scientific rules that we humans claim to be able to understand, when placed in context, are utterly baffling in magnitude. It is futile to even attempt to wrap ones mind around all which has ever existed or will exist.

I began that lengthy paragraph trying to convey an emotion, or a feeling. When faced with the above realizations, what feelings do we have? Awe, certainly. Wonder. Amazement. Perhaps fear. But mostly, I feel humility. I feel humble because I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I am an infinitely small and insignificant part of existence. I know that every other human who has lived or ever will live is too. I know there exists that which is greater than I, that which is beyond my wildest comprehension, that which is superior to human value and beyond human capabilities. I know there exists that which is superior to mere mortals. I know, in other words, that there is a God.

That emotion is what gives me my faith, and I am overpowered by this emotion when I hear a beautiful song, see a beautiful photo, or watch a powerpoint that has both. I call these God Moments, and whenever I have them I'll try to post whatever prompted it on the blog. Anyway, enough redundant rambling: I hereby pronounce  religion week to be over!

My Thoughts on the Core Essence of Religion & Christianity

"The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." - Albert Einstein
I've spent a lot of time this week staving off attacks on Christianity and religion in general; in other words, writing about what God is not. So to close out my Religion Week, I'd like to instead talk about what God is. Since the end of the world did not arrive yesterday, I suppose it's time for all those nut-jobs to reconsider their religious beliefs. And one question they, or anybody who is doing some religious soul searching and deep contemplation on religious issues, might ask is "What is God? Yeah yeah, I know, he's the creator of Earth and the universe, and he gave his only son to save us from our sin, I've heard all that Christian mumbo jumbo a thousand times. But what does that mean? What does he, or she, or it, consist of?

I too have wondered this. And as a devout Christian, I have never been more sure about any other question. I haven't the faintest idea.

It is with utter certainty that I confess my uncertainty. I have pondered God and religion for hours and hours and hours, and all of my thought on these subjects has led only to one simple conclusion: I do not possess the mental capacity to comprehend them. I cannot fathom a form of being which lacks matter, time, and location. The entirety of my brief window of consciousness has been spent in an existence which abides by these unchanging rules; it is impossible for any of my senses to perceive, for my mind to contemplate, that which exists beyond those constraints. No amount of logic or faith, scientific study or bible study, could grant me this ability. And while I have never entered the mind of another, I don't think any human could have possessed, can possess, or will be able to possess this power either. Even the words we think and write are an entirely human creation, each one describing human ideas, human emotions, human sensations. Communicable language can only describe concepts which are perceivable to those who are communicating. How, then, can we possibly use words to describe that which is beyond our perception?
“Intelligence makes clear to us the interrelationship of means and ends. But mere thinking cannot give us a sense of the ultimate and fundamental ends.” - Albert Einstein
Yet I am a Christian. If I cannot fathom God, one might ask, why do I worship him? Well, for precisely that reason. If I could truly and wholly comprehend the nature of existence itself, there would be nothing that existed beyond my comprehension. If I possessed infinite knowledge, nothing would be beyond my reach, because nothing is beyond infinity. I would have no shortcomings. But I do have shortcomings. I don't know everything. I get confused. Not only that, I am a sinner. I am mortal. I cannot describe God in words. But I can think of one word which I feel best describes the core essence of my faith. That word is humility. And recognizing the disparity between what I am and perfection is the most humbling revelation imaginable.

Humility, in the religious sense, has two connotations. The first is simply putting others before oneself. This is the most basic, fundamental, and universal moral precept of nearly all the worlds religions. The Golden Rule--treat others as you would like to be treated--is found not only in the Bible but also in the Torah, Quran, and most other major religious texts. Genuine selflessness is venerated by every culture on earth: this is a human value, not specific to any religion, and I find that heart-warming. It gives one hope for the future of humanity.

But that moral compass is shared even by many atheists. The most noteworthy aspect of humility in our quest for the core essence of religion is not found in our interactions with other people, but in our interactions with God. At the pulpit, preachers beseech us to seek forgiveness for our sins, and refer to humility as it relates to recognizing our moral shortcomings. This is wise, for we sin, but we must also have humility in recognizing our intellectual shortcomings. Humility is the opposite of vanity, and it would be vain, nay, brazenly arrogant, to assert that we possess the mental might to comprehend all of existence. We must recognize that we are not only morally bereft, but intellectually inadequate. We must concede the existence of that which our puny monkey brains cannot comprehend, that which is superior to us.
“The scientists’ religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” - Albert Einstein
“Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe-a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble.” - Albert Einstein

This recognition establishes a binary. On one side of this binary is imperfection, sin, ignorance, mortality. This side we associate with ourselves, with humanity. On the other side is perfection. Divinity. Undying, eternal, all-knowingness. That which this side is associated with, I call God. Due to my own mental inadequacies, I cannot pretend to understand God or God's nature. But my brain is powerful enough to recognize those shortcomings, and identify what lies beyond its own limits.
 “The human mind is not capable of grasping the Universe. We are like a little child entering a huge library. The walls are covered to the ceilings with books in many different tongues. The child knows that someone must have written these books. It does not know who or how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. But the child notes a definite plan in the arrangement of the books—-a mysterious order which it does not comprehend, but only dimly suspects.” - Albert Einstein
What then, convinces me that no other human is capable of comprehending God? Merely that one of the smartest men of all time couldn't do it either. And because he was smarter than I am, he could explain this concept of religion much more succinctly and effectively than I can. It is for this reason that I've utilized some of his explanations above.

The reader may have wondered why I opened the post with another of his quotes. I waited until now to get back to that, because I hope the above will help the reader better understand the context of that line. If the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it's comprehensible, then the most comprehensible thing about the universe is that it's (at least partially) incomprehensible. Which makes those parts which are beyond our comprehension worthy of wonder. Einstein referred to these moment of awestruck admiration as "the mystic emotion"; I call them "God moments".
“My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind.” - Albert Einstein
“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling” - Albert Einstein
Thus, Einstein explains, as best as it can be explained, the core essence of religion in general. But my title also spoke of Christianity, specifically,  andisn't there a lot more to Christianity than that? What of Christ? What of the Bible? Where does that come in? I am a Christian because I believe Christ was the fusion of the two sides of our binary, the window through which we can see God. Christ was perfect, yet born in humble circumstances. Immortal, yet he once died. Divine, yet human. He was the one and only exception to the rule, a perfect human, which makes him the ultimate role model. His divinity is unattainable for us, and yet we must strive for it even though we know we will fall short. We must accept that the world is not perfect even as we try to create a more perfect world.

What of creation? If God is perfect, and God created the world, then how is the world imperfect? Again, I cannot claim to know the "reasons" or "motivations" behind God's "actions", if such narrow human concepts can even apply to God's workings. But in a way, isn't our world actually made perfect by it's imperfection? A "perfect" world, as most would imagine it, free from all suffering or conflict or trouble, would actually be an awfully boring place to live. Pleasure would be devalued if pain did not exist, and if there exists no ugliness than beauty does not appear so radiant. Our binary resurfaces everywhere. No human could even imagine a world as perfect as the one we live in, complete with all the hardships it contains. It is perfectly imperfect, or imperfectly perfect, or...whatever (it is possible to overthink these things!).

What of an afterlife? Again, I don't pretend to know what, specifically, awaits me. But I do not expect a naked baby angel playing a harp on a cloud with a golden gate. I speculate that whatever existence awaits me (or my soul, or however you define my identity) after death is one equally incomprehensible to human minds as is the nature of God itself. And if there is some sort of afterlife admissions office, I reject the notion that I can now, with my limited human perspective and knowledge, identify who "gets in" and who doesn't.

I will close this post with one final quote from the genius it has centered around. I started off searching for the core essence of religion, but Einstein gave a better definition of it than I could ever articulate:
“The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties - this knowledge, this feeling ... that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Change of Plans; the Rapture is at Hand!

Due to the long and redundant nature of the "20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity" rebuttal posts, and due to some confusion about which font contained my words and which font contained the Anti-Christian vitriol, I have decided to forgo posting my responses to numbers 11-20. In fact, in the prior sentence I provided 2 Reasons to Abandon the 20 Reasons to Abandon Christianity! Aren't I clever?

Instead, today I'd like to talk about the end of the world. What, didn't you hear it's coming tomorrow? In completely unintended coincidence, the final day of my Religion Week has been declared as the arrival date of the "Rapture", which is nut-job for "cataclysmic action of God that will end the world and kill us all." Depending on which radical cult you believe, it's either supposed to happen all in one fell swoop tomorrow at 6:00 PM, or a major catastrophe will occur tomorrow that won't immediately destroy the world, but will set into place a series of events which does. I'd imagine those who believe in the former may start converting to the latter at about 6:15 tomorrow evening.

But believe it or not, I'm not concerned. In fact, I'm so unconcerned, that I'm willing to be $1,000,000,000 that the world will not end tomorrow. Any of my readers wanna take me up on that?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

My Thoughts on the Separation of Church and State

One common area of contention between Republicans and Libertarians is religion as it relates to politics. The theory of a "separation between church and state" is also the primary reason that being a "card carrying member of the ACLU" is viewed so derogatorily by those who otherwise favor "civil liberties". As a Christian Libertarian who generally supports Republicans, I am particularly divided by this schism. Since it fits in with my religion theme this week I'd like to explore my thoughts on the subject. Whether or not I believe in a "separation of church and state" depends on your definition of church.

Many Republicans, conservatives, and Christians deny the existence of any separation of church and state whatsoever. They often use this to justify claims that "America is a Christian nation" or that "American was founded on Christian principles", and thus that holiday displays or other (largely trivial) religious themed images needn't be stricken from government buildings. They are wont to use phrases like "the first amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion", or to note that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not present in the constitution. They are correct; however, that does not mean it did not originate with the ideas of the Founding Fathers. The phrase's origins lie in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Babtists in 1802, which read:

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
Furthermore, it does say in the constitution that the government shall make no establishment of religion, meaning America is not "a Christian nation." The argument that America was founded "on Christian principles" is also unfounded; Christ is not mentioned once in the Constitution, and the fact that many of the Framers were Christian does not make the principles they founded the nation on unique to Christianity. Thus, I support the removal of all Christian-specific paraphernalia from public government displays, courthouses, etc. The government must not endorse any one religion over another, no matter how insignificant that endorsement may appear. That appears straightforward enough, and that is where the thought process stops for most people debating the issue; the separation of church and state appears just and necessary.

But the line is not that clear cut. What paraphernalia is "Christian-specific", and what constitutes as an "endorsement" or an "establishment"? To many Democrats, agnostics, atheists, and Libertarians, the phrase "separation of church and state" means that religion and government should have absolutely nothing to do with one another. This line of thinking runs into trouble in defining of what is or is not a religion. Does a "religion" mean any belief in any God? A certain moral code? Do a minimum number of others have to share your beliefs? There are thousands of "officially recognized" religions in the world, but from my libertarian perspective, there shouldn't need to be. Not only should people be able to think whatever they like, do whatever they like, worship whatever they like, wherever they like in conjunction with as many other people they like, but they should be able to call that belief system whatever they want to call it. The government shouldn't recognize specific collections of thoughts as "religions", because if it does so it has to draw a line somewhere between what is and isn't a religion. We all have our own theories, our own versions or spins or takes on our faiths, our unique perspectives. The first amendment essentially defends our freedom to hold any belief we choose. Freedom of religion was lumped in with freedoms of speech and assembly for a reason; what is religion but a collection of beliefs shared by a collection of people? The lines between what is a religion or what is simply a "moral code" or "belief system" is blurry. And all governments, ours included, are founded on one such moral code.

Government, by definition of the word, governs the actions of its subjects. Some activities must be permitted, and others disallowed: just how many ought to be disallowed and for what reason is the core essence of politics, and is the basis for some moral code. Whatever is disallowed, it must be due to some moral code adopted by the government. John Locke called this moral code a "social contract". For instance, in most governments we disallow murder, theft, and assault. Some do it on the grounds of a religious text. In this country, we do it to defend the "unalienable rights" to life, liberty, and property. In fact, the very same man I quoted above describing the "wall of separation between church and state" also wrote that humans are "endowed by their Creator" with these rights (note the capital C) in the Declaration of Independence. He wrote a few sentences prior that people are "entitled" to "separate but equal station" by "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God."

What did he mean by all that Olde Enlgish mumbo-jumbo? That rights are not given to people by government, they are unalienable, they are inherent at birth, that we are "endowed by our Creator" with them. In other words, we get them from God. He continued that "to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men." Our government was instituted, our "social contract" formed, around that exact ideology, with that sole objective: securing the rights endowed upon humans by God. If that's not religious, I don't know what is.

It is not uniquely Christian, and it does not endorse one "official" organized religion over another. The necessity of government neutrality between competing ideologies, and of the principles of equality under the law and not making any "establishment" of religion remain. But so long as we cannot distinguish between a religion and any other belief system (which we cannot), and so long as all governments are founded on some sort of belief system (which they are), we cannot eradicate religion from governance entirely. Tangibly, symbolically, we can remove the physical trace of common religious icons. But the government must govern in accordance with somebody's morality, and thus in practice it must assert some moral codes as superior to others.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Debunking Anti-Christian Myths

On Monday, I answered 10 questions aimed to guide people away from Christianity. Today, I'd like to undertake a similar but slightly different approach. I have taken 20 statements attacking Christianity from a lengthy atheist editorial, and I will refute the veracity or insinuated implications of each one. Due to the length of these writings, I will take only excerpts, and will separate this exercise into two days: today and Friday. Thursday's post will be some unrelated thoughts on the separation of Church and State. This is extremely long, but I didn't write all of it: more than half of it is copied from the below link. Feel free to skim the link stuff and read my stuff to save time.

The original text from that website is in italics. My responses are in regular font. Please do not confuse the italic text for my opinions!

1. Christianity is based on fear. While today there are liberal clergy who preach a gospel of love, they ignore the bulk of Christian teachings, not to mention the bulk of Christian history. Throughout almost its entire time on Earth, the motor driving Christianity has been—in addition to the fear of death—fear of the devil and fear of hell. One can only imagine how potent these threats seemed prior to the rise of science and rational thinking, which have largely robbed these bogeys of their power to inspire terror. But even today, the existence of the devil and hell are cardinal doctrinal tenets of almost all Christian creeds, and many fundamentalist preachers still openly resort to terrorizing their followers with lurid, sadistic portraits of the suffering of nonbelievers after death. This is not an attempt to convince through logic and reason; it is not an attempt to appeal to the better nature of individuals; rather, it is an attempt to whip the flock into line through threats, through appeals to a base part of human nature—fear and cowardice.

Historically that is true. Today, in my church and the VAST majority of Protestant Christian church’s, that’s utterly and entirely false. Throughout history, preachers realized that threats were more effective than bribes, and unfortunately they based much of their teachings on persuading Christians to avoid hell and get to heaven by describing vividly horrific scenes of death. Christians were taught to be “God-fearing.” However, this is a horrible misinterpretation of Jesus and his life, and was a result of a power hungry church, NOT a flaw in the core beliefs called Christianity. I am a Lutheran, a Protestant, and above all a Christian but I believe God and his earth are to be loved, not feared. The argument states that “many fundamentalist preachers still openly resort to terrorizing their followers with lurid, sadistic portraits of the suffering of nonbelievers after death.” This is a grossly exaggerated description but I agree that is not what Christianity is about, it’s not what I believe, and I feel those fundamentalists are out of line. In fact, I don’t even believe in hell in the traditional, fundamentalist state. It may exist in some form, but it’s certainly not a fiery place with a horned devil inflicting physical pain.

2. Christianity preys on the innocent. If Christian fear-mongering were directed solely at adults, it would be bad enough, but Christians routinely terrorize helpless children through grisly depictions of the endless horrors and suffering they’ll be subjected to if they don’t live good Christian lives. Christianity has darkened the early years of generation after generation of children, who have lived in terror of dying while in mortal sin and going to endless torment as a result. All of these children were trusting of adults, and they did not have the ability to analyze what they were being told; they were simply helpless victims, who, ironically, victimized following generations in the same manner that they themselves had been victimized. The nearly 2000 years of Christian terrorizing of children ranks as one of its greatest crimes. And it’s one that continues to this day. 

As an example of Christianity’s cruel brainwashing of the innocent, consider this quotation from an officially approved, 19th-century Catholic children’s book (Tracts for Spiritual Reading, by Rev. J. Furniss, C.S.S.R.): 
Look into this little prison. In the middle of it there is a boy, a young man. He is silent; despair is on him . . . His eyes are burning like two burning coals. Two long flames come out of his ears. His breathing is difficult. Sometimes he opens his mouth and breath of blazing fire rolls out of it. But listen! There is a sound just like that of a kettle boiling. Is it really a kettle which is boiling? No; then what is it? Hear what it is. The blood is boiling in the scalding veins of that boy. The brain is boiling and bubbling in his head. The marrow is boiling in his bones. Ask him why he is thus tormented. His answer is that when he was alive, his blood boiled to do very wicked things. 

There are many similar passages in this book. Commenting on it, William Meagher, Vicar-General of Dublin, states in his Approbation:
"I have carefully read over this Little Volume for Children and have found nothing whatever in it contrary to the doctrines of the Holy Faith; but on the contrary, a great deal to charm, instruct and edify the youthful classes for whose benefit it has been written."

Again, this is totally untrue in today’s Christian world. The article reference a book from the 1800’s! These teachings are absurd, and certainly not practiced on any notable scale today. Besides, while these excerpts are frightfully and gruesome, it cannot be doubted they were effective; the aim has always been to do good things and to make the world a better place by following Jesus’ teachings,  and while the means for distributing that message were often unnecessarily harsh that is still an admirable goal.

3. Christianity is based on dishonesty. The Christian appeal to fear, to cowardice, is an admission that the evidence supporting Christian beliefs is far from compelling. If the evidence were such that Christianity’s truth was immediately apparent to anyone who considered it, Christians—including those who wrote the Gospels—would feel no need to resort to the cheap tactic of using fear-inducing threats to inspire "belief." ("Lip service" is a more accurate term.) That the Christian clergy have been more than willing to accept such lip service (plus the dollars and obedience that go with it) in place of genuine belief, is an additional indictment of the basic dishonesty of Christianity. 

How deep dishonesty runs in Christianity can be gauged by one of the most popular Christian arguments for belief in God: Pascal’s wager. This "wager" holds that it’s safer to "believe" in God (as if belief were volitional!) than not to believe, because God might exist, and if it does, it will save "believers" and condemn nonbelievers to hell after death. This is an appeal to pure cowardice. It has absolutely nothing to do with the search for truth. Instead, it’s an appeal to abandon honesty and intellectual integrity, and to pretend that lip service is the same thing as actual belief. If the patriarchal God of Christianity really exists, one wonders how it would judge the cowards and hypocrites who advance and bow to this particularly craven  "wager."

He wouldn’t. Anyone who try’s to teach the word of God through threats isn’t really teaching the word of God. The “Lip service” you mention is a greedy practice by the corrupt or misguided clergymen of centuries ago. Pascal was a brilliant man, but his “wager” was not one of his main teachings. His “wager” was merely an insurance blanket, a last ditch effort if all else failed to persuade someone to embrace Christianity. I wholeheartedly admit it’s a silly concept. But I’m happy the argument brought up Pascal, because he is a perfect example of a the fusion of science and religion. Pascal lived during the enlightenment, a time of scientific advancement and a strong emphasis on reason and logic as a means to truth. Pascal was a brilliant contributor to the science of his time (anyone familiar with mathematics will recognize Pascal’s triangle), but was also a devout Christian. He dedicated much of his life to promoting the idea that science and religion were not in any way at odds, an idea I wholeheartedly support.

4. Christianity is extremely egocentric. The deep egocentrism of Christianity is intimately tied to its reliance on fear. In addition to the fears of the devil and hell, Christianity plays on another of humankind’s most basic fears: death, the dissolution of the individual ego. Perhaps Christianity’s strongest appeal is its promise of eternal life. While there is absolutely no evidence to support this claim, most people are so terrified of death that they cling to this treacle promise insisting, like frightened children, that it must be true. Nietzsche put the matter well: "salvation of the soul—in plain words, the world revolves around me." It’s difficult to see anything spiritual in this desperate grasping at straws—this desperate grasping at the illusion of personal immortality.

Oh come on, that’s so narrow minded. Obviously when people speak of eternal life they do not mean the physical body will continue to live forever. Listen, I have NO CLUE what awaits me after death. I have faith there is some form of conscious existence, but I highly doubt it has anything to do with my body or physical, selfish pleasure, as the above insinuates. I don’t think heaven is angels playing harps on a cloud with a golden gate, in fact I have no idea what heaven is like. The idea of a non-earthly existence is beyond human comprehension, because the human mind does not possess the capacity to truly understand things beyond its own experience. This is where faith comes in; I know in my gut, for complicated reasons I’ll explain later, that there is a divine being (heretofore referred to as God) of some sort. I believe Jesus was the human manifestation of that divine being, and that the Bible expresses God’s will for us through Jesus’ teachings. The idea of life, or even existence, is impossible for our puny human brains to comprehend; what defines existence? What does it mean to be? I sure don’t know, but I do know that when I die my existence doesn’t just terminate. I believe in some form of afterlife not because I’m desperate or selfish, but because I believe my existence is not defined by my heartbeat.

Another manifestation of the extreme egotism of Christianity is the belief that God is intimately concerned with picayune aspects of, and directly intervenes in, the lives of individuals. If God, the creator and controller of the universe, is vitally concerned with your sex life, you must be pretty damned important. Many Christians take this particular form of egotism much further and actually imagine that God has a plan for them, or that God directly talks to, directs, or even does favors for them.(1) If one ignored the frequent and glaring contradictions in this supposed divine guidance, and the dead bodies sometimes left in its wake, one could almost believe that the individuals making such claims are guided by God. But one can’t ignore the contradictions in and the oftentimes horrible results of following such "divine guidance." As "Agent Mulder" put it (perhaps paraphrasing Thomas Szasz) in a 1998 X-Files episode, "When you talk to God it’s prayer, but when God talks to you it’s schizophrenia. . . . God may have his reasons, but he sure seems to employ a lot of psychotics to carry out his job orders."

In less extreme cases, the insistence that one is receiving divine guidance or special treatment from God is usually the attempt of those who feel worthless—or helpless, adrift in an uncaring universe—to feel important or cared for. This less sinister form of egotism is commonly found in the expressions of disaster survivors that "God must have had a reason for saving me" (in contrast to their less-worthy-of-life fellow disaster victims, whom God—who controls all things—killed). Again, it’s very difficult to see anything spiritual in such egocentricity.

I don’t feel I am helpless in an adrift in an uncaring universe. I feel God has a goal for humanity, and as a human I play an individual role in attaining that objective. My actions and beliefs are entirely up to me, but there is some guiding force that helps things happen the way they do. I do not feel my prayers will influence God’s will, or that God will literally pop a bearded head out of the sky to “speak to me”. I do know, however, through personal experience that praying to God and verbally expressing your feelings, wishes, graciousness, faith, and love are exceedingly rewarding, and can lead you to truths you would never have come to had you not spoken these thoughts aloud. In this way God can “speak to you” or communicate a certain message merely through the teachings he has already given to us through his son. Egotism or thinking individuals are important enough to warrant God’s “attention” has nothing to do with it. The ignorance of this argument is revealed in it’s attempt to humanize God, depicting it as a person with a fixed amount of time which he must divvy between who deserves it most. Such a simple and inaccurate caricature of divinity is just as ignorant as the author makes Christians out to be.

5. Christianity breeds arrogance, a chosen-people mentality. It’s only natural that those who believe (or play act at believing) that they have a direct line to the Almighty would feel superior to others. This is so obvious that it needs little elaboration. A brief look at religious terminology confirms it. Christians have often called themselves "God’s people," "the chosen people," "the elect," "the righteous," etc., while nonbelievers have been labeled "heathens," "infidels," and "atheistic Communists" (as if atheism and Communism are intimately connected). This sets up a two-tiered division of humanity, in which "God’s people" feel superior to those who are not "God’s people." 

That many competing religions with contradictory beliefs make the same claim seems not to matter at all to the members of the various sects that claim to be the only carriers of "the true faith." The carnage that results when two competing sects of "God’s people" collide—as in Ireland and Palestine—would be quite amusing but for the suffering it causes.

Historically, this is totally true. Even today religious conflicts are abundant, albeit much less with Christianity than with Islam or Judaism. But I don’t feel this way. I believe religion is a personal decision, I recognize that if I were born in the Arab world in all likelihood I would be Muslim too, and I respect our difference in belief. I also realize that all the world’s major religions, despite differences in details and disagreements on the nature of divinity, basically advocate the same core principles of peace, love, happiness, respect, and generosity. The golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is written in literally every major religious text in hundreds of languages. Far more unifies the world’s religions than that which separates them, which makes it especially easy to embrace other religions peacefully and respectfully.

6. Christianity breeds authoritarianism. Given that Christians claim to have the one true faith, to have a book that is the Word of God, and (in many cases) to receive guidance directly from God, they feel little or no compunction about using force and coercion to enforce "God’s Will" (which they, of course, interpret and understand). Given that they believe (or pretend) that they’re receiving orders from the Almighty (who would cast them into hell should they disobey), it’s little wonder that they feel no reluctance, and in fact are eager, to intrude into the most personal aspects of the lives of nonbelievers. This is most obvious today in the area of sex, with Christians attempting to deny women the right to abortion and to mandate near-useless abstinence-only sex "education" in the public schools. It’s also obvious in the area of education, with Christians attempting to force biology teachers to teach their creation myth (but not those of Hindus, Native Americans, et al.) in place of (or as being equally valid as) the very well established theory of evolution. But the authoritarian tendencies of Christianity reach much further than this.

I don’t do that. Again, I respect all people’s right to disagree and I support evolution. I’m not authoritarian. Most Christians aren’t. A select few do, and that’s unfortunate, but the excesses mentioned here are no different in Christianity than they are in government or science or a dozen other fields. Politicians assert their views as superior to others and often act in an authoritarian manner; do you suggest we should abandon government too? The feeling that your belief is correct and is the only one worthy of consideration is a fault of human nature, not of Christianity.

Up until well into the 20th century in the United States and other Christian countries (notably Ireland), Christian churches pressured governments into passing laws forbidding the sale and distribution of birth control devices, and they also managed to enact laws forbidding even the description of birth control devices. This assault on free speech was part and parcel of Christianity’s shameful history of attempting to suppress "indecent" and "subversive" materials (and to throw their producers in jail or burn them alive). This anti-free speech stance of Christianity dates back centuries, with the cases of Galileo Galilei and Giordano Bruno (who was burnt alive) being good illustrations of it. Perhaps the most colorful example of this intrusive Christian tendency toward censorship is the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books, which dates from the 16th century and which was abandoned only in the latter part of the 20th century—not because the church recognized it as a crime against human freedom, but because it could no longer be enforced (not that it was ever systematically enforced—that was too big a job even for the Inquisition).

Christian authoritarianism extends, however, far beyond attempts to suppress free speech; it extends even to attempts to suppress freedom of belief. In the 15th century, under Ferdinand and Isabella at about the time of Columbus’s discovery of the New World, Spain’s Jews were ordered either to convert to Christianity or to flee the country; about half chose exile, while those who remained, the "Conversos," were favorite targets of the Inquisition. A few years later, Spain’s Muslims were forced to make a similar choice. 

This Christian hatred of freedom of belief—and of individual freedom in general—extends to this day. Up until the late 19th century in England, atheists who had the temerity to openly advocate their beliefs were jailed. Even today in many parts of the United States laws still exist that forbid atheists from serving on juries or from holding public office. And it’s no mystery what the driving force is behind laws against victimless "crimes" such as nudity, sodomy, fornication, cohabitation, and prostitution. 

If your nonintrusive beliefs or actions are not in accord with Christian "morality," you can bet that Christians will feel completely justified—not to mention righteous—in poking their noses (often in the form of state police agencies) into your private life.

No, you cannot bet that. You can bet that Christianity has had an unfortunate history of abuses on freedom…just like virtually every government in the world. Every nation on every corner of the globe has practiced the oppression of freedoms at some point in their history, often cruelly and violently. Yet I highly doubt the author would argue to abandon civilized government! The truth is that humanity, not just Christianity, has a bloodthirsty, unfair, and lengthy history of wrongdoing. Illuminating individual incidents in the centuries old history of a modern institution is not a reasonable argument against the merit of that institution today or the ideology it is based upon.

7. Christianity is cruel. Throughout its history, cruelty—both to self and others—has been one of the most prominent features of Christianity. From its very start, Christianity, with its bleak view of life, its emphasis upon sexual sin, and its almost impossible-to-meet demands for sexual "purity," encouraged guilt, penance, and self-torture. Today, this self-torture is primarily psychological, in the form of guilt arising from following (or denying, and thus obsessing over) one’s natural sexual desires…
…Given that the Bible nowhere condemns torture and sometimes prescribes shockingly cruel penalties (such as burning alive), and that Christians so wholeheartedly approved of self-torture, it’s not surprising that they thought little of inflicting appallingly cruel treatment upon others. At the height of Christianity’s power and influence, hundreds of thousands of "witches" were brutally tortured and burned alive under the auspices of ecclesiastical witch finders, and the Inquisition visited similarly cruel treatment upon those accused of heresy…

…While the torture and murder of heretics and "witches" is now largely a thing of the past, Christians can still be remarkably cruel. One current example is provided by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Its members picket the funerals of victims of AIDS and gay bashings, brandishing signs reading, "God Hates Fags," "AIDS Cures Fags," and "Thank God for AIDS." The pastor of this church reportedly once sent a "condolence" card to the bereaved mother of an AIDS victim, reading "Another Dead Fag."(2) Christians are also at the forefront of those advocating vicious, life-destroying penalties for those who commit victimless "crimes," as well as being at the forefront of those who support the death penalty and those who want to make prison conditions even more barbaric than they are now.
But this should not be surprising coming from Christians, members of a religion that teaches that eternal torture is not only justified, but that the "saved" will enjoy seeing the torture of others. As St. Thomas Aquinas put it:
In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful and that they may give to God more copious thanks for it, they are permitted perfectly to behold the sufferings of the damned . . . The saints will rejoice in the punishment of the damned. 

Thus the vision of heaven of Christianity’s greatest theologian is a vision of the sadistic enjoyment of endless torture.

This argument yet again mentions unwise, unfair, and unreasonable actions undertaken “At the height of Christianity’s power and influence.” Once again, the author minces his words. This was not at the height of Christianity, but the height of a flawed and power hungry Catholic Church. The church body is and was a group of humans, who through a flawed interpretation of the Bible committed some horrible crimes, even if their intentions were usually good. The Christianity I believe in advocates none of the elaborate horrors described above; the continual assaults on the misdeeds of centuries ago only serve to magnify the glaring lack of connection to today’s world and the beliefs that the vast majority of today’s Christians hold. That church who pickets and sends letters is a ridiculous cult; the argument against Christianity as a whole is akin to arguing that since the KKK was from America, America must be evil. I have yet to read a reason that attacks the ideals of Christianity instead of the misdeeds of a small minority.

8. Christianity is anti-intellectual, anti-scientific. For over a millennium Christianity arrested the development of science and scientific thinking. In Christendom, from the time of Augustine until the Renaissance, systematic investigation of the natural world was restricted to theological investigation—the interpretation of biblical passages, the gleaning of clues from the lives of the saints, etc.; there was no direct observation and interpretation of natural processes, because that was considered a useless pursuit, as all knowledge resided in scripture. The results of this are well known: scientific knowledge advanced hardly an inch in the over 1000 years from the rise of orthodox Christianity in the fourth century to the 1500s, and the populace was mired in the deepest squalor and ignorance, living in dire fear of the supernatural—believing in paranormal explanations for the most ordinary natural events. This ignorance had tragic results: it made the populace more than ready to accept witchcraft as an explanation for everything from illness to thunderstorms, and hundreds of thousands of women paid for that ignorance with their lives. One of the commonest charges against witches was that they had raised hailstorms or other weather disturbances to cause misfortune to their neighbors. In an era when supernatural explanations were readily accepted, such charges held weight—and countless innocent people died horrible deaths as a result. Another result was that the fearful populace remained very dependent upon Christianity and its clerical wise men for protection against the supernatural evils which they believed surrounded and constantly menaced them. For men and women of the Middle Ages, the walls veritably crawled with demons and witches; and their only protection from those evils was the church. 

When scientific investigation into the natural world resumed in the Renaissance—after a 1000-year-plus hiatus—organized Christianity did everything it could to stamp it out. The cases of Copernicus and Galileo are particularly relevant here, because when the Catholic Church banned the Copernican theory (that the Earth revolves around the sun) and banned Galileo from teaching it, it did not consider the evidence for that theory: it was enough that it contradicted scripture. Given that the Copernican theory directly contradicted the Word of God, the Catholic hierarchy reasoned that it must be false. Protestants shared this view. John Calvin rhetorically asked, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

Yawn. More attacks on centuries old Catholics. I agree Catholicism entirely screwed up the past. We get it, and I doubt even the most devout fundamentalist would disagree. So can we please move on? The vast majority of these first 7 ½ reasons are irrelevant to the questions at hand.

More lately, the Catholic Church and the more liberal Protestant congregations have realized that fighting against science is a losing battle, and they’ve taken to claiming that there is no contradiction between science and religion. This is disingenuous at best. As long as Christian sects continue to claim as fact—without offering a shred of evidence beyond the anecdotal—that physically impossible events occurred (or are still occurring), the conflict between science and religion will remain. That many churchmen and many scientists seem content to let this conflict lie doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.

I suppose I am “disingenuous at best” then because I absolutely believe that there is no conflict between science and religion whatsoever. One is the how, the other is the why. For more on that, see yesterday’s post.

Today, however, the conflict between religion and science is largely being played out in the area of public school biology education, with Christian fundamentalists demanding that their creation myth be taught in place of (or along with) the theory of evolution in the public schools. Their tactics rely heavily on public misunderstanding of science. They nitpick the fossil record for its gaps (hardly surprising given that we inhabit a geologically and meteorologically very active planet), while offering absurd interpretations of their own which we’re supposed to accept at face value—such as that dinosaur fossils were placed in the earth by Satan to confuse humankind, or that Noah took baby dinosaurs on the ark.

Huh? I really laughed out loud at that, that’s utter garbage as far as I’m concerned, I’ve never heard anyone argue any of those things. And those who do are certainly not your mainstream Christian.

They also attempt to take advantage of public ignorance of the nature of scientific theories. In popular use, “theory” is employed as a synonym for “hypothesis,” “conjecture,” or even “wild guess,” that is, it signifies an idea with no special merit or backing. The use of the term in science is quite different. There, “theory” refers to a well-developed, logically consistent explanation of a phenomenon, and an explanation that is consistent with observed facts. This is very different than a wild guess. But fundamentalists deliberately confuse the two uses of the term in an attempt to make their religious myth appear as valid as a well-supported scientific theory. They also attempt to confuse the issue by claiming that those nonspecialists who accept the theory of evolution have no more reason to do so than they have in accepting their religious creation myth, or even that those who accept evolution do so on “faith.” Again, this is more than a bit dishonest. 

Thanks to scientific investigation, human knowledge has advanced to the point where no one can know more than a tiny fraction of the whole. Even the most knowledgeable scientists often know little beyond their specialty areas. But because of the structure of science, they (and everyone else) can feel reasonably secure in accepting the theories developed by scientists in other disciplines as the best possible current explanations of the areas of nature those disciplines cover. They (and we) can feel secure doing this because of the structure of science, and more particularly, because of the scientific method. That method basically consists of gathering as much information about a phenomenon (both in nature and in the laboratory) as possible, then developing explanations for it (hypotheses), and then testing the hypotheses to see how well they explain the observed facts, and whether or not any of those observed facts are inconsistent with the hypotheses. Those hypotheses that are inconsistent with observed facts are discarded or modified, while those that are consistent are retained, and those that survive repeated testing are often labeled “theories,” as in “the theory of relativity” and “the theory of evolution.” 

This is the reason that nonspecialists are justified in accepting scientific theories outside their disciplines as the best current explanations of observed phenomena: those who developed the theories were following standard scientific practice and reasoning—and if they deviate from that, other scientists will quickly call them to task. No matter how much fundamentalists might protest to the contrary, there is a world of difference between “faith” in scientific theories (produced using the scientific method, and subject to near-continual testing and scrutiny) and faith in the entirely unsupported myths recorded 3000 years ago by slave-holding goat herders. 

Nearly 500 years ago Martin Luther, in his Table Talk, stated: “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.” The opposite is also true.

Although I believe in evolution and the scientific method and insist that science and religion do not contradict one another, there is a certain merit to the argument that scientists asserting reason as superior to faith are being just as arrogant and stubborn as those asserting faith as superior to reason. Reason and feeling are two entirely separate methods of knowing; it goes back to the old ideological debate between the Enlightenment movement and the Romanticism movement. Atheists long belabor the circular arguments of those advocating faith, without realizing their use of reason is equally centrifugal. Atheists love to point out that the justification for acquiring knowledge through faith is faith itself, which makes means there is no justification unless we assume the conclusion is true. But do they not justify their search for knowledge through reason with more reason? What’s to say reason is superior to faith? What’s to say conclusions drawn via evidence or logic are superior to those drawn though feeling and emotion? Now I’m getting a bit over my head in deep ideas here, and I have nothing against logic and I embrace both means of knowing in my everyday life. Still, I feel it is arrogant to assume that the ideas garnered through the logical capacities of human beings are sufficient to understand all things. Perhaps a human understanding heaven through logic is akin to an ant trying to understand the internet through logic; it is impossible for that being to fathom with his logical brainpower, but that doesn’t mean heaven or the internet do not exist. Another way to put it is that Christians have knowledge of faith, while atheists put faith in knowledge.

9. Christianity has a morbid, unhealthy preoccupation with sex. For centuries, Christianity has had an exceptionally unhealthy fixation on sex, to the exclusion of almost everything else (except power, money, and the infliction of cruelty). This stems from the numerous "thou shalt nots" relating to sex in the Bible. That the Ten Commandments contain a commandment forbidding the coveting of one’s neighbor’s wife, but do not even mention slavery, torture, or cruelty—which were abundantly common in the time the Commandments were written— speaks volumes about their writer’s preoccupation with sex (and women as property).

False. The Bible, and nearly all holy books of the world, instruct you to treat others with kindness, love, and respect. Again, the saying “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” comes to mind. Just because individual sins are not spelled out by name doesn’t mean they are in line with the basic precepts of the Bible.

Today, judging from the pronouncements of many Christian leaders, one would think that "morality" consists solely of what one does in one’s bedroom. The Catholic Church is the prime example here, with its moral pronouncements rarely going beyond the matters of birth control and abortion (and with its moral emphasis seemingly entirely on those matters). Also note that the official Catholic view of sex—that it’s for the purpose of procreation only—reduces human sexual relations to those of brood animals. For more than a century the Catholic Church has also been the driving force behind efforts to prohibit access to birth control devices and information—to everyone, not just Catholics.
The Catholic Church, however, is far from alone in its sick obsession with sex. The current Christian hate campaign against homosexuals is another prominent manifestation of this perverse preoccupation. Even at this writing, condemnation of "sodomites" from church pulpits is still very, very common—with Christian clergymen wringing their hands as they piously proclaim that their words of hate have nothing to do with gay bashings and the murder of gays.

Homosexuality is undoubtedly a hot topic among both the religious and the non-religious. Each is entitled to their own opinion, and mine is that being gay is NOT a choice, that you are born with your sexual preference predetermined. And even if this were not true, I would still demand that gays get the same rights as everybody else (my views on gay marriage will be spelled out next week!)

But regardless of your personal beliefs, the above attack on Christianity is once again an attack on a few misguided individuals who happen to call themselves Christians, not an attack on Christianity. Those misguided people kill and assault other human beings and treat them nastily; what could be less Christian than that? Just because they claim to be acting on behalf of Christ doesn’t mean they actually are. The argument’s repeated attempts to define the beliefs of all Christians by those of a radical minority are a pathetic attempt to poison the well of Christianity, to discredit his opponent using a straw man, regardless of what they actually believe.

10. Christianity produces sexual misery. In addition to the misery produced by authoritarian Christian intrusions into the sex lives of non-Christians, Christianity produces great misery among its own adherents through its insistence that sex (except the very narrow variety it sanctions) is evil, against God’s law. Christianity proscribes sex between unmarried people, sex outside of marriage, homosexual relations, bestiality, (3) and even “impure” sexual thoughts. Indulging in such things can and will, in the conventional Christian view, lead straight to hell. 

Given that human beings are by nature highly sexual beings, and that their urges very often do not fit into the only officially sanctioned Christian form of sexuality (monogamous, heterosexual marriage), it’s inevitable that those who attempt to follow Christian “morality” in this area are often miserable, as their strongest urges run smack dab into the wall of religious belief. This is inevitable in Christian adolescents and unmarried young people in that the only “pure” way for them to behave is celibately—in the strict Christian view, even masturbation is prohibited. Phillip Roth has well described the dilemma of the religiously/sexually repressed young in Portnoy’s Complaint as “being torn between desires that are repugnant to my conscience and a conscience repugnant to my desires.” Thus the years of adolescence and young adulthood for many Christians are poisoned by “sinful” urges, unfulfilled longings, and intense guilt (after the urges become too much to bear and are acted upon).

Even after Christian young people receive a license from church and state to have sex, they often discover that the sexual release promised by marriage is not all that it’s cracked up to be. One gathers that in marriages between those who have followed Christian rules up until marriage—that is, no sex at all—sexual ineptitude and lack of fulfillment are all too common. Even when Christian married people do have good sexual relations, the problems do not end. Sexual attractions ebb and flow, and new attractions inevitably arise. In conventional Christian relationships, one is not allowed to act on these new attractions. One is often not even permitted to admit that such attractions exist. As Sten Linnander puts it, “with traditional [Christian] morality, you have to choose between being unfaithful to yourself or to another.”

One of the first things I thought of upon reading this argument was “A Brave New World.” The idea that humans should just act upon whatever “urges” they feel, and that any belief system that disagree is worth abandoning, is certainly not one I agree with. Males often feel the “urge” to have sex with a woman who may very well not wish to have sex with them. By this article’s logic the man should just rape her, because after all it is a sexual urge. In times of heightened fury and rage, murder can also be a natural human urge. Yet the “urge” to do something does not justify the action. I believe in a phrase called “mind over matter,” which asserts that we humans have complete mental control over our physical actions. If I feel the urge to have sex when I shouldn’t, my decision to or not to do so is entirely within my control. And I do not believe that humans should engage in an activity merely because we have the “urge” to do so. 

For centuries, the majority of Western civilization has been Christian, marriages have been heterosexual and divorces illegal, and non-marital sex was a legally punishable crime. I’m not saying I agree with those laws, but people have lived monogamous sexual lives for centuries without protest. I believe in love that goes beyond the pleasures of the flesh. If this connection of souls is stripped away, and all that remains is the connection of body parts, then how is human intercourse any different from that of animals? Marriage is not supposed to be a union of two people who want to have sex, but a union of two people who love each other so much they wish to spend the rest of their lives together. That connection does not “ebb and flow,” and “new attractions” do not “inevitably arise” from it. Obviously, human genitals know nothing of love, but married couples should; this, not sexual desire, is what should keep a marriage together.