Archive for December, 2010

Theists often have a significant difference from atheists regarding how they approach the question of God’s existence. An atheist, in the vast majority of cases, looks simply at whether or not there is evidence to support the proposition “God exists.” (The biggest exception to this generalization is Christopher Hitchens, who not only sees no evidence for God’s existence, but also makes a large to-do about how he “doesn’t even wish it were true.”) A theist, on the other hand, looks for evidence (or more usually — via the field of study known as apologetics — tries to explain why there is none) but also puts a large amount of effort into describing the societal benefits of belief in God.

This non-evidential form of argument does nothing more than frustrate atheists. Not because it is difficult to deal with (all one must do is steer the debate back to the topic at hand) but because it is not relevant to the conversation. What does it matter if people are happier when they believe in God? As George Bernard Shaw said, “the fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”

This tendency of theists is also the reason Hitler is brought up in debates between creationism and evolution. (Unfortunately for the theists, causing an automatic loss due to Godwin’s Law.) That acceptance of evolutionary theory as fact by the vast majority of a population (or, more likely, its leaders) could lead to genocide, eugenics, and “evil” has no bearing on whether evolution is true or not. But again, the reason theists bring up the argument is because they do not care solely about evidence. They, for whatever reason, think the outcome of holding a belief is as important as whether the belief is true.

A great example of this is the quote from Dostoevsky’s novel “The Brothers Karamazov” which states “if God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” Basically, the theist is claiming, by using this quote, that if people don’t believe in God, everyone would be raping and killing one another, and they would be objectively allowed to do so. Sounds pretty scary, huh?

Of course, like most theistic claims, only a few moments of thought are required to see right through this inanity. Say God was disproved tomorrow. Would you be free the day after tomorrow to murder your neighbor? Not if you want to stay out of prison. Would it be okay to park in the handicapped spot in the parking lot? Not unless you want a $500 fine. Not only would laws still exist even if God didn’t, I don’t think people would even want to murder and rape and steal just because God wasn’t about to punish them for it. Or at least, I hope not. As Einstein said, “if people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

But I don’t want to use this post to refute this oh-so-easily-refuted yet oh-so-often-used quote. It’s been done before. I want to explain why I think the statement isn’t just wrong, but backwards. It isn’t that everything would be permitted if God didn’t exist. No, no, no. Rather, if God exists, everything is permitted. I’m going to start generally with theism, and then hone in on some specific grievances I have with Christianity and the specific sect of Evangelical Protestantism.

Alright, so God exists. What does this mean? Well for starters, it means that there is now an avenue to knowledge that is completely unverifiable. Since God intervenes in human affairs, there is no reason why he can’t tell anyone something in secret, as in the case of Moses. Want that piece of pizza? Just say “God told me I could have that.” Think that 12 year old will make a perfect wife? Tell the mother that their lord GOD has decreed the marriage will occur this afternoon. There’s no way to verify any of these things, but hey, God exists, and it’s possible he did say them, and you don’t want to piss off God by not listening to his newest prophet!

Moving on to Christianity and all the religions that say Hell exists. Okay, what the hell do we need laws for, then? You can outline what will and will not send you to Hell, and that should be it. If that rapist would really enjoy raping everyone he sees for the rest of his life, and he’s okay with going to Hell, well Hell should be punishment enough. (Being everlasting suffering of infinite magnitude, and all.) The threat of Hell should be much more of a deterrent than prison or other punishments exacted in this life. But for those who don’t buy it, they will be free to do whatever they want.

Then there is quite possibly the most dangerous belief of all. The idea that, just by accepting Jesus as your personal savior, you can be absolved of all your crimes and be “born again,” giving you a VIP ticket through the pearly gates. How does this not permit anything and everything? Murder your family, rape your grandmother, kill every single person in the state of Idaho, and will you go to Hell? Not if you just BELIEVE IN JESUS. This belief, which is rampant in Evangelical Protestantism, is the most insane moral proclamation ever made. It completely removes intent, action, and consequence from the ethical equation. Good means “anything plus Jesus” and bad means “anything without Jesus.” Ridiculous.

On the other hand, if God doesn’t exist, we are forced to find reasons for our actions. Consequences mean something. Intent means something. It isn’t what you believe, but what you do that makes you good or bad. To say that everything would be permissible in God’s absence completely ignores what goes in to moral decisions. Because adding God to the equation forces you to remove everything else (reasons, intents, actions, and consequences) from morality, you are truly free to do whatever you want if God exists.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com πŸ™‚

I think there is a fundamental issue I have with the religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

It is not what you think it might be. Or rather, it is not solely what you think it might be. It is not solely the lack of intellectual rigor that goes into the theology. It is not solely the absence of evidence for the claims. It is not solely that they turn their adherents into mindless sheep.

The problem I have with them is that, at their core, these religions are not vehicles for gathering a deeper understanding of the universe or ourselves. Rather, they are systems of morality aimed at controlling a population.

Think about it. In the beginning, or at close enough to it, there was God and Adam and Eve and a garden. There was no religion. There was, however, a rule. Humanity’s existence was from the get-go bound by rules, according to these traditions. That rule was to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And once that rule was broken, religion had to be created to keep people in line.

Let’s compare the Abrahammic traditions with both Eastern religion and modern-day science. If you listen to gurus or monks of Eastern traditions, you sometimes hear them talk about Christianity and the Western religions. How do you think they talk about them? Unlike Western religion, which seeks to demonize and drive people away from other religious schools of thought, Eastern religions embrace the language and more esoteric teachings of Western religions when the audience would find it useful. Eastern religion does not express superiority, but encourages empathy, compassion, and most of all perhaps, opening one’s mind to new ideas.

This analysis is similar to what one gets when they compare Western religions with science. As Carl Sagan said, “there are no forbidden questions in science, no matters too sensitive or delicate to be probed, no sacred truths.” You are free to investigate whatever interests you. You are free to follow the evidence wherever it leads. But this is not so if you are an adherent to one of the Abrahammic traditions. Some things are off limits. Some things should not be thought about, and especially not told to others, lest you damage their faith. And if you are too curious, you will be branded as different, as an outsider.

But you can’t learn anything within the Western religions, either. Not anything you don’t already know, anyway. You sit in church every Sunday and all you are told is what you shouldn’t do (drink, gamble, have sex for fun, use contraceptives, get abortions, etc.), what you should think (about what you shouldn’t do and about current events), and what you shouldn’t think (anything that would lead to doubting your pastor). Yet society is already a sufficient guide for what you should and shouldn’t do. Everyone already knows, to varying degrees, how to be a “good member of society.” Going to your weekly worship workshop in the Western way is simply a way to declare yourself to be part of the “in group” and to meet others in the “in group” that you may together ostracize the “out group.”

Why is this? Why do the Abrahammic religions discourage learning and compassion of other groups so? It is because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are not, as I said, systems one uses to gain knowledge. The systems are meant to be forms of social control, the glue that keeps the structure of society together. “Strength through Unity. Unity through Faith.”

Because of this, Christianity and the other Western traditions are merely moral systems, a set of rules under a pseudo-spiritual figurehead that allows for in-group-out-group mentality. Intellectual curiosity is not allowed because you may learn too much. You may learn about other systems and what they teach, or even (gasp!) that the religion you were born into is false. You are not allowed to know about other systems, and are especially not allowed to like them, because this defeats the purpose of us versus them. Having someone to hate boosts group cohesion.

It is from this that all the problems people have about “religion” (by which people usually mean Christianity, Islam, and sometimes Judaism) stem. This is why less than half of the United States believes in evolution. This is why gays can’t marry. This is why atheists are widely believed to be Satanists. This is why abortion clinics get bombed and doctors get shot. This is why. And this is my problem with the Abrahammic religions.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com πŸ™‚

In this semi-serious post, I seek to compare two of my favorite philosophers: George Carlin and Alan Watts. Now, I say semi-serious for many reasons. First, George Carlin is a comedian, not a philosopher. However, as a social critic I do think he had a distinct outlook on life that could be labeled as a philosophy. Second, while there are some similarities that I will outline with this post, the two men would probably disagree on a wide assortment of issues, and their range of topics only overlapped to a very limited degree.

Yet while this post will be only semi-serious, I do think it will be one of my most original and (hopefully) thought-provoking posts for a long time. I hope you enjoy it. I know I will enjoy writing it πŸ™‚

It would probably be prudent to explain who these men are for those who do not know. George Carlin, as I mentioned earlier, was a comedian and social critic. He had a sort of black humor that bit into the heart of modern society and made us laugh at ourselves. In doing so, I think he also did a great deal to make us actually think. Not just about ourselves, but of our society and the real problems it has. Here’s a video clip for a taste of George:

Alan Watts was a philosopher and theologian. (What? RR likes a theologian!? B-blasphemy…?) He was most famous for explaining Zen Buddhism and other Eastern religions to Western audiences. It might be better to just give you a taste of Alan rather than try to explain him:

So you may be wondering how these two people could have anything in common. Carlin seems to be a very cynical, skeptical, sort of person, while Watts is very mellow and perhaps high. However, though the two seem at first glance to be quite different, I think their philosophies complement one another quite well.

To begin our analysis, let’s compare two videos, one of George and one of Alan:

They seem, in these videos, to be talking about roughly the same thing. Namely, that modern society in this country is a sham, a hoax, a game meant to benefit those at the top. Carlin focuses much more on the “conspiracy theory” of it, insinuating that things are they way they are because those with the power want it to be so. This reveals in him his not-so-secret distrust of government. Watts, on the other hand, puts the attention on how we delude ourselves into buying into the system. He holds a more idealistic view of humanity, claiming that we are only stuck in this mess because we have been tricked into it.

Both, however, clearly label the system as rigged. Carlin said in that last clip “the table is tilted, the game is rigged.” In this next video, Alan joins George in brining “them” (those in power) into the mix:

In that video, Alan says “they are so unsure of the validity of their game rules that they say everyone must play.” And at the end of the video, he says of people who choose not to play the game that they “give the community great strength, because it tells the government in no uncertain terms that there is something more than government.” Watts and Carlin come together again to lift up individualism and nonconformity as virtues in this society in which conformity is the norm and anything else brands you as an outsider.

Now, because this view of society as being against us is somewhat depressing, especially as George describes it, George was asked how he manages to see the problems without having his mental state negatively affected. His answer, as outlined in this next video, shows yet another similarity between himself and Alan.

Carlin suggests that if you want to stay sane while keeping your mind going, seeing the problems in the world, you should “become a spectator.” He later says “I look at it as a show. It’s a big circus, it’s a big parade, whatever metaphor you wanna use.” Little does he know, however, that taking the attitude of a spectator is a very Zen, a very Eastern, way of looking at the world. Carlin used the the words “circus” and “parade,” while Watts, in the video above, called life “a musical thing.” Watts also preferred to call life a “theater.” In this video (8 minutes in) Watts, describing the Hindu concept of God (Brahman), says it is “the actor of the world, the player all the parts, so that everyone is a mask… in which the Brahman plays a role.” And that we, incarnations of Brahman “like an absorbed actor, the divine spirit becomes so absorbed in playing the role, as to become it.” He then mentions another term for our society, saying “and this is all part of the game.”

While it is obvious that Carlin’s suggestion is driven by a sense of practicality rather than mysticism, it seems clear to me that they are both on relatively the same page. Both in the same chapter, so to speak. Carlin says that it is a good idea to not take such a vested interest in the outcome of things such that you become infuriated with the impossibility of your plight. Watts says that it is a good idea to not take such a vested interest in such things because deep down the problems are simply what you make of them. They are problems because your are looking at things from the wrong angle. Carlin agrees, and to him the world with all its problems is the “freak show.” For him it is entertainment.

So there you have it. How interesting that two (seemingly) completely different people would have so much in common. I was very surprised the last few days, as I had been watching YouTube videos of both of them, how their messages overlapped. What do you guys think? Am I reading way too much into this, or do great minds think alike?

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com πŸ™‚

We as a species have come up against a quite a few problems, (at least) two of which related to energy. First, there is only so much energy on the planet in the form of fossil fuels — coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Second, the burning of these fossil fuels, according to research done by climate scientists, is warming our planet, which could have negative impacts on our environment in the future.

Is it even possible to solve these problems? Are the solutions to the problems related? Can we kill two birds with one stone?

I think the answer to all these questions is “yes.” The question then becomes not can, but how? How should we go about solving these problems that will come back to bite us in the future?

There seem to be two schools of thought that are most prevalent in the political debate that has formed around this topic. The first is the conservative notion that the second problem isn’t a problem at all, and to deal with the first problem is an attack on our liberty to use whatever fuels we please as well as potentially harmful to business. The second is the liberal notion that we have to do anything we can to solve the second problem before it is too late, and doing so should solve the first problem at the same time.

I would like to propose that both approaches to our energy problems are flawed, either in their premises or in their approaches (or both).

Let’s start with the conservative approach. It is wrong on its face due to its denial of global warming. The science tells us the earth is warming, and we are most likely the cause, plain and simple. (I again encourage you to check out this series on the subject, which is very well done.) The latter piece of it, a hodgepodge of offense at the idea of being forced not to be an idiot and typical conservative defense of big business (which has plenty of resources to take care of itself), is similarly flawed, because it does not even make an attempt to solve the first problem we have (that we’re running out of fossil fuels). However, I do not necessarily blame them, due to how the liberals are handling things…

The liberal approach, while at least based in scientific accuracy, is not completely based in reality. It places far too much emphasis on global warming and the environment. While it is noble to fight these issues from a liberal standpoint, it is akin to insanity from a conservative outlook. Liberals do not seem to understand that by making the issue global warming, they have given conservatives an easy out. Conservatives are comfortable with ignoring facts, especially scientific ones, so they are more than happy to turn the whole thing into a public referendum on the legitimacy of climate science.

Here is what I propose: drop the global warming issue. Not outright, because conservatives would jump on that and claim they were right all along. But over time, increase the emphasis on the need to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, lest we have to bow to the Middle East to get our country to function.

If we can get the debate focused on how to solve the energy problems (be that with wind or solar or nuclear energy) instead of whether there is a problem at all, I think we can actually make some progress.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com πŸ™‚

(Blog) Policy Change

Hey all! You may have noticed that I missed Monday and Wednesday this week. (For the past few weeks I’ve been posting religiously (lol) on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.) Monday I missed because Comcast sucks, and Friday I missed because I was too busy getting drunk the night before to write anything.

Anyway, I think I’m going to change things up a bit. I’m not going to post on a set schedule. This may negatively impact readership, but the readership isn’t very high right now anyway so I don’t mind πŸ™‚ I am still debating whether to write many little things or fewer longer, more thought out things. (If you have a preference either way, feel free to comment.) But I will probably post at least once a week.

Thanks for reading and thanks for the supportive comments!


The Paradox of War

Any pacifists out there? While I hesitate to call myself a pacifist, I am against war in general and am most certainly against the current wars in Iraq in Afghanistan. (Though I did support the Iraq war when it first started, my reasons were very poor. Not sure if I ever bought into the WMD thing but I’m sure I used the excuse to make myself feel better about our elected officials.) What I want to describe today is why I think in this day and age, war is a paradox.

I say in this day and age because there might have been a time in the past when war was the only option. Back when there were many relatively small tribes that could not peaceably interact with one another (for fear they would be kidnapped or killed), the only way to resolve disputes was probably war. Now, however, things are much different. We are wiser, smarter, and all-around nicer than our ancestors were.

Yes, in this day and age I think there is no need for war. It makes absolutely no sense.

In today’s world, there are two kinds of countries we could go to war with. The first is democratic countries. The second is non-democratic countries, or if you prefer, dictatorships.

You might have thought of a third target for our military aggressions, such as “terrorism.” Of course, it is not possible to declare war on a word or an idea. Today’s war on terrorism is just a ploy to keep our economy going through military spending. More Americans die each year from car accidents than all of the terrorist attacks against us put together. The threat just is not there. We do more damage to ourselves via the privacy- and rights-stripping laws we enact than the terrorists could do to us. That was probably their plan in the first place anyway.

Similarly, the “war on drugs” in this country is also a faΓ§ade. A majority of people in this country have done drugs before. Nobody believes the claims made by the government about the harmfulness of marijuana. Hard drugs are another story, but seriously. The war on drugs is just a way for governments to make money, and probably to put black people in jail.

Let us examine the first of our potential targets, the democratic country. Peaceful. For the most part, run by the people who live in it. These are nations we consider among our allies. If we have disagreements with them, we can use diplomacy. Anything but the most egregious offenses would do nothing more than cause some ill will for a year or two.

The second option, the dictatorship, is essentially the opposite of the democratic country. Either openly militaristic, or plotting to be. Run by a single person or a small clique, without taking input from the populace. Diplomacy doesn’t work. Always on the brink of declaring war on you.

It’s somewhat obvious why war is not an option in the first case. But why shouldn’t it be in the latter?

To understand why, I think we should first look at the factors involved with the former case. Since democratic countries share, for the most part, our opinions on rights and the role of the people, we have much more to agree on than disagree on. For whatever reason, we like democracies. Here’s the funny thing, though: because these countries are democratic, and subject (to varying degrees) to the will of the people, wars would actually work against them! If people don’t like them, they can tell their government to back down on whatever stupid shit they’re up to. (I am assuming the United States would never attack another democratic country without that country having done something we don’t like.)

And now we see why attacking a dictatorship makes no sense. A war punishes, for all intents and purposes, the people of that country. (And in this case it would punish a people for something they did not choose or do.) A dictator is just the general of the army, not a soldier. To the dictator, the inhabitants of the country are merely pawns to be sacrificed. As we saw in Iraq, the actual war didn’t really end until we got Saddam. Since then it’s just been stabilizing the chaos we created. There is no incentive for a dictator to end a war, even a losing one, because they don’t need to listen to the people.

Therein lies the paradox. We do not need to use war against democratic countries, and war is a poor tool to use against dictatorships.

Of course, there are other reasons why war doesn’t make any sense, even against democratic countries where the leadership of the country could be changed by the populace. Any foreign enemy will increase patriotism and nationalism in a population. Lots of people would want to fight simply because they were being attacked. They would go from peaceful people that didn’t want to fight, to hardened citizens, doing their duty to protect their country from foreign invaders. This is probably a good part of what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan now.

So, you may be wondering, what do we do then when faced with a threat from a dictator? Sanctions probably also hurt the populace more, though sanctions could cause a slowdown in the plans of dictators while causing minimal damage to the people. I’d probably recommend assassination, perhaps via long-range missile into the presidential palace, combined with underground resistance efforts to cause a revolution during the following confusion. I don’t know. My point in this post was just to say why war is bad, not what we should do instead.

I shall leave you with a quote from Albert Einstein:

“He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”

Some day we will grow out of this infantile tendency toward killing one another. With the power of our weapons increasing every day, far out-pacing our enlightenment, that day cannot come soon enough. Until then, do not join the military. If a draft comes, leave the country or be a conscious objector. Whatever it takes to ensure we make it to a future without war.

~peace, RR

I welcome comments and suggestions. Comments can go below, suggestions to radiantreason[at]gmail[dot]com πŸ™‚