Archive for the 'essay' Category

26
Jan
14

so dumb all ye faithful

I’ve inadvertently done a three-part series on belief. For the previous two, go here and here.

Belief results from a lack of accurate information/knowledge.
I don’t believe in science. Flashback: in previous essays I have presented religious belief as, essentially, an anti-intellectual position. In more familiar terms, it is stupid and induces stupidity. “But you believe the Sun will rise tomorrow.” I can tell you down to the minute when the next sunrise will occur. Just after the turn of the 20th century a shipwreck off a Greek island held the mysterious remains of an amazing artifact. It turned out to be a work of unparalleled engineering (think Swiss clock-making only way more badass), a model of the known solar system in the form of an Olympic-based calendar, accurately predicting the movements of the planets as well as lunar and solar eclipses. The first known computer developed not through divine inspiration, but through human curiosity and ingenuity; it was a product of the scientific method, and the scientific method, not faith, would later reconstruct it. There’s a BBC documentary called The 2000 Year-Old Computer worth watching. We have always been a very clever species.

We have always been a very stupid species.
Not many centuries after the device’s invention a new virulent strain of Judaism congealed called Christianity. Over the years it has done itself no favours by resisting theories such as heliocentrism and evolution. Unfortunately a disturbing number of people in the West, urged on by anti-science fundamentalist pastors, reject evolution and maintain that the biblical book of Genesis is literally true. Some creationists have even attempted to develop theoretical models based on a young Earth. Conspiracies abound. Hilarity ensues. Creationists would simply be a joke if they didn’t have so much money and political influence (an argument for taxation could be made here, if one was so inclined).

Belief is a four-letter word.
There are, of course, valid beliefs: proponents of string theory have mathematical and theoretical reasons to believe they are on to something. String theorists lack understanding; they do not know if the universe is composed of vibrating strings of pure energy or not, but neither does anyone else. You could say that theirs is an evidence-based belief. Conversely, the flat Earth model is an excellent example of a faith-based belief. Photographs from satellites and the ISS pretty much close that debate. Belief is a placeholder for knowledge and is thus a transient state.

Herein lies the problem with faith.
The concordance in my Bible (NIV) does a nice job of summarizing the religious interpretation of faith. Except that faith is not knowing; knowledge renders faith moot as they are mutually exclusive. With knowledge, faith becomes regressive and harmful. Faith is ultimately a rejection of contrary evidence, and its survival in the modern world is contingent upon scientific and historical revisionism. Enter stage left: creationism. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a working mathematical model of the Flood (“the Earth is almost completely covered with water!” is my favourite rationale). The only way that a young earth and a global flood are possible is by rewriting the known physical laws. Completely. And the only way to accomplish that is to throw away the Standard Model and disregard the scientific method. Completely.

Faith is fundamentally dishonest.
Like all religions, Christianity is composed of bits and pieces of other cultures; hell, it is itself a derivative of Judaism that recycles the same origin myth in the Pentateuch. Undaunted, creationists twist and ignore facts in an attempt stuff the universe into a preexisting narrative. A literal Genesis, creationists insist, is instrumental to the Christian faith and necessary for the crucifixion and thus redemption. (A literal Genesis is silly.) Such a creation story could only be physically true by revising fundamental scientific concepts, definitions, and basic facts.

When will we learn?
The last century saw the emergence of Scientology and Mormonism (fourteen years into this one and we aren’t faring much better). The answer is never.

Must. Evolve. Faster.

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23
Jan
14

this lesser light of mine

And God made two great lights; the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also. Genesis 1:16

Photo: Thom Roland

Photo: Thom Roland

According to the Bible, the Moon is a light source. Scientific ignorance in a pre-science culture is certainly excusable, but consider this: how humans learn (observation, contemplation, experimentation) hasn’t really changed over the millenia; only our methods have improved. Simple observations with the unaided eye show that the Moon itself is not a light (eclipses anyone?). Shortly before sitting down to write this I looked at the Moon: outside it was snowing lightly, but even through the haze and light pollution I saw the lunar topography. With the development of telescopes and, more recently, cameras, our ability to examine the “lesser light” has grown astronomically.

Photo: Thom Roland

Photo: Thom Roland

The above photo was taken last year from my balcony using a DSLR and a very mediocre 300mm zoom lens. Instead of a light shining on us, the Moon appears shone upon. Even with hobby-level gear the Moon looks like it’s composed of dust and rock. Imagine that.

Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

Oh right, we no longer have to.

Photo: NASA

Photo: NASA

So either the Moon is a light source that’s incredibly dirty (to be fair there is no wind to blow away the dust), or the Bible got a very simple fact very wrong–in the first chapter, no less! Just to stave off the inevitable whines about appeals to “context,” photosynthesis requires a light source. Oops.

10
Jan
14

truth-i-ness

For that which is to count as ‘truth’ from this point onwards now becomes fixed, i.e. a way of designating things is invented which has the same validity and force everywhere, and the legislation of language also produces the first laws of truth, for the contrast between truth and lying comes into existence here for the first time: the liar uses the valid tokens of designation–words–to make the unreal appear to be real. –Friedrich Nietzsche, On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense

The reality of every one’s existence proceeds thus from the “inwardness” of man, not from anything that the mind can codify, for objective knowledge is always at one or more removes from the truth. –Philip Mairet, ‘Introduction’ to Existentialism & Humanism by Jean-Paul Sartre

One of the oddities of belief is the idea of truth or, specifically for our purpose here, claims to truth. The most familiar example to many of us is the Bible, but it is by no means alone; countless other books make similar claims. There are many ways to convince the reader of this, so let’s look at a few.

John 1

John 1

The Gospel of John’s claim in chapter 1 is complex. We have the truth claim: This is the word of God the creator of all things as told by his mortal agents. The author adds a second claim: God is this truth. If that’s not enough, we also have another: this truth is a person that is and has always been with God. That’s some strong stuff. Using your god as your reference is pretty authoritative, to be sure, but this is hardly unique to the Bible.

The Odyssey

The Odyssey

The Odyssey

The Odyssey

Epics have an interesting convention called the invocation of the Muse and you can find it all throughout ancient art. The very first words of The Odyssey invoke the Muse, a deity believed to inspire and guide the poet’s hand. Sound familiar? The invocation is even repeated identifying the particular Muse. In these four lines Homer makes reference to several gods: Zeus, Athena, and Hermes. And he mentions several more not included in the scans.

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

John Milton, in Paradise Lost, makes use of this trope by invoking the “Heav’nly Muse.” It is interesting to note how beautifully he mixes Christian and ancient Greek mythologies; Milton was keenly aware of the Epic form.

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes

The use of a first-person narrator lends authority to a text. “I” gives a sense of ownership; when someone speaks, their words hold them accountable. Thus the use of “I” provides the illusion that the speaker possesses special knowledge and speaks the truth. Unfortunately this also makes corroboration difficult for the speaker is often presented as the sole authority to at least part of the story.

“But the Bible is historically accurate!”

The Hobbit

The Hobbit

Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire mythos (including languages) surrounding Middle Earth under the guise of history. Both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are presented as translated excerpts from The Red Book of the Westmarch, a much more comprehensive historical document.

OK, so maybe The Red Book isn’t historically accurate, but Ulysses is. James Joyce exquisitely captured Dublin as it was on a particular date in history. You can to this very day follow the steps of the (fictional) protagonists down to the minute. Compare that to the wanderings described in Exodus.

Hard Core Logo

Hard Core Logo

Hard Core Logo

Hard Core Logo

The apparent legitimacy of a claim is further strengthened by referencing outside material. Being an academic, Tolkien knew this well and made clever use of The Red Book to help the readers suspend their disbelief. But if you want to fool readers into truly believing a fabrication, it’s best to invent some credible sources. Why not letters and legal documents? Throw in some transcribed phone messages, song lyrics, and set lists, and Hard Core Logo has enough fake material to make the fake memoir of a fake punk band seem real.

Sybil

Sybil

Sybil

Sybil

Finally, there’s the direct approach. The example I’m using shows just how difficult it is to prove much of anything, even when you have a lot of facts and credible people supporting you. The legitimacy of Sybil is still debatable and it is entirely possible that we will never know the truth of this case.

Afterword:
“[…] it’s texts that create the identity” –Kathy Acker, Hannibal Lecter, My Father
Kathy was speaking about her method and the use of “I” in texts, but she touches on something very relevant and quite profound. If the text creates the identity of the speaker and, as is the case with religious texts, if the reader is supposed to emulate/aspire to–and not merely identify with–the text, then it also creates the identity of the reader. It is worth mentioning (however briefly as I haven’t read it) that the female protagonist in the Twilight series is defined vaguely creating a kind of character vacuum within the text that readers fill. The intent is to convince the audience that what they are reading is real and that they are the protagonist. Effectively, you are Bella and you fall in love with Edward. Such is the power of words.

29
Jul
12

The Atheist Dog(ma)

How do I self-identify? The short answer is, I suppose, as an atheist. The long answer is I’m not entirely sure. Maybe that’s just stubbornness on my part. (I avoid labeling whenever possible because my experience has been that most labels are too fluid, especially at the fringes.) Maybe I’m just naive. I hope this provides a bit of context; either way I don’t lose sleep over it.

But is atheism a dogmatic religion? This assertion is cited as immutable fact primarily by Christians–and even a few agnostics–in a bid to put religion and atheism on equal footing. (As if the two are somehow interchangeable.) The dogmatic part (and they will toss dictionary definitions at you until you cry) of atheism is the non-belief in God (or any god). Science usually replaces God as the figurehead; I guess that makes scientists its priests. That is, of course, asinine; trusting the scientific method and putting absolute faith in an invisible being are not analogous. Besides, I thought Satan was supposed to be the polar opposite of God’s infinite goodness.

The lack of a moralistic god-figure makes atheism fundamentally amoral. I can hear Christian apologists screaming, “‘The horror! The horror!'” right now. With no father-figure to show us right from wrong the world would be in anarchy and civilization doomed. Fortunately for the planet, that’s not the case. We, individually and collectively, determine the moral standards for ourselves, homes, workplaces, cities, states/provinces, countries, clubs, sports teams, sports leagues, BBQ block parties… Not only do we decide what morals to adopt, we constantly re-evaluate and re-calibrate them as we, individually and collectively, experience life. That seems far more democratic to me than morality-by-decree.

The 10 Commandments are, by and large, fairly universal in message. Few people would agree that a culture based on murder and theft could possibly last for long. We can reason our way to conclude that murder is a poor value to promote; no divine intervention required, no plagues or floods needed to show us the path. If we think about survival as a species (something the Old Testament is very concerned with), we conclude very quickly that murder, as a generally accepted practice, is bad for us.

Evolution is another favourite candidate for religious status. The technical, sciency arguments aside, this one is just annoying. By now the apologist is a little frantic, so Charles Darwin fills the non-belief void. To the argument’s credit we can definitively prove Darwin lived and died (or at least I haven’t heard anyone denounce Darwin’s existence like, say, the Jewish holocaust), but elevating him to mythic status is quite a feat. Darwin shed light on the mechanism behind how life propagates and adapts (i.e. natural selection); while he certainly deserves virtually every award conceivable for a scientist, he is unworthy of deification. I have a profound appreciation for his contributions to science; I most certainly do not worship him…or Richard Dawkins, or L. Ron Hubbard, or anyone else. These views make me a freak, evil, or whatever colourful descriptions the apologist has at his/her disposal. But that changes nothing except for the tone of the conversation.

The probability that in this universe there exists a supremely powerful life form orchestrating all matter (and time) is incredibly small. That, for me, is at the heart of atheism. Not the absolute, zealous belief that God does not exist; that’s more akin to religious fanaticism. Atheism is non-belief. There is no system. There is just us: a small, vulnerable species on a damp rock trying to make sense of our place in a vast, mind-numbingly beautiful universe.

@thom_roland




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