Tuesday, August 19, 2008

We are they

This beautiful National Geographic article reminded me of something I've been thinking about for quite a while. The article is about how an archeological find in the Sahara confirms theories about certain groups of people who lived there when it was more temperate, several thousand years ago.

The image that struck me was of the Stone Age Embrace, a grave containing (presumably) a mother and two children with hands interlaced. This arrangement of bodies touches me deeply, because it shows that people who lived thousands of years ago may not have been so different from us today. When I think of the people who lived in ancient Egypt, or Sumeria, or medieval Europe, or prehistoric North America, I often wonder about the nameless masses of people who lived and died without leaving a trace of their existence. We know almost nothing about any specific person who may have lived and died so long ago.

But they were like us. They loved each other. They loved their children. They were afraid of the dark. The sun gave them light, and the earth gave them water. They looked up at the same stars we see. They wondered about the meaning of life, and their place in it. They mourned the deaths of those they loved. They were afraid to die, and they wanted to be remembered. Now I'm projecting a bit, but I like to think that these things are true. And the Stone Age Embrace makes me think that I'm not too far off. I think they loved their lives just as much as we love our own. And one day in the not-too-distant future, we will become them.

I often try to look at life and existence from many different angles. It helps me to understand and appreciate my place in the universe. Here is one way of looking at it: We are now living in the past. Just as those who lived and died thousands of years ago are in our distant past, we are in the distant past of those to come. People will wonder who we really were, and what life was really like so many years ago, back in the 21st century. What will they think of us? How will they know who we were? Will they admire us for our achievements? Will they thank us for having made their world a better place? I hope so. And I hope they will find some of us buried in an Information Age Embrace.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Feed your kids if you don't want them to die

This story just totally broke my heart. How could anyone do this to their own child? I don't buy the line that it wasn't her decision not to feed the boy. If she hadn't made a decision not to feed the boy, she would have fed the boy.

This is an extreme example of the spirit vs. conscience concept I was talking about the other day. I don't care if you believe that God, or God's prophet, or the Holy Spirit, or Jesus himself told you that your two-year old child is a demon and you shouldn't feed him. If you have any sense of human decency, you feed your fucking child. And then you get far, far away from whoever told you otherwise.

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's OK to be uncertain

Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science — by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans — teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.
—Carl Sagan

I'm fairly new to this skepticism business. Well, I am and I'm not. In many ways, I've been a skeptic since I was two years old, when I used to ask my parents where God came from. However, I have always craved certainty, and my religious history reflects this. I'll save the full story for another time, but let's just say that although I have always asked deep questions and sought true answers, I have never allowed myself the freedom to be uncertain.

Even now, spilling my thoughts to the world, I feel like I need to have everything figured out before I propose even the simplest idea. If I want to talk about the cosmos, I ought to have a Ph.D. in astrophysics. If I want to talk about science and skepticism, I ought to be an expert in philosophy, and I ought to have extensive scientific research experience. If I want to talk about religion, I ought to have an M.Div. and speak half a dozen ancient languages. If I want to talk about the human condition, I ought to be an expert in psychology, sociology, political science, and so on.

The fact is, I am an amateur. I am educated, and I am always becoming more so. I have a point of view, which I try to base on evidence, but I am not an expert. I am uncertain of many things, and I am trying to allow myself to accept this. It is impossible to know very much with certainty, yet I strive for better understanding. Mostly, I think I would like my understanding to be complete, but I am coming to grips with the fact that this will never happen.

One huge benefit of uncertainty is its flexibility. I am open to new evidence, and I am willing to be persuaded. I try to accept good ideas and reject bad ones, no matter where they come from. In this way, I hope to learn much about how the universe really works. This is how science works as well, building upon imprecise understanding in order to fit our theories to reality, not the other way around. I guess this blog is my peer review.

I started with a Sagan quote, and I think I'll end with one too. This quote is from The Demon-Haunted World, and epitomizes the attitude I strive for.

I’m frequently asked, “Do you believe there’s extraterrestrial intelligence?” I give the standard arguments—there are a lot of places out there, the molecules of life are everywhere, I use the word billions, and so on. Then I say it would be astonishing to me if there weren’t extraterrestrial intelligence, but of course there is as yet no compelling evidence for it.

Often, I’m asked next, “What do you really think?”

I say, “I just told you what I really think.”

“Yes, but what’s your gut feeling?”

But I try not to think with my gut. If I’m serious about understanding the world, thinking with anything besides my brain, as tempting as that might be, is likely to get me into trouble. Really, it’s okay to reserve judgment until the evidence is in.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Conscience trumps spirit

Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things — that takes religion.
—Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg

I've been giving it the old college try at church for the past few weeks. Trying to look for positive things I can appreciate, and trying to contribute positive thoughts of my own. Some weeks are better than others.

This past week, I learned something while sitting in Sunday school. I don't think it had to do directly with the Korihor lesson, but maybe something in the lesson jogged my brain. I had the thought that conscience is more important than spirit. In other words, if you feel like the "Holy Spirit" is telling you to do something, but your conscience is objecting to it, follow your conscience. Your sense of spirit is messed up.

Here's an example to illustrate. Let's say you believe that the spirit is telling you that there is no God but Allah, therefore all American infidels must die, and you should accomplish this by poisoning the water supply. Er... okay, that example would work fine, but let's try something slightly less obviously destructive to the entire world. Let's say your co-worker has a gay son who just died, and you are a Christian who believes that homosexuality is an abomination. Should you:

A. Picket the funeral, shouting and holding signs that say "God hates fags" and "Thank God for AIDS".
B. Express to your co-worker your sorrow that his son will spend eternity in hell, and share with him the good news of Jesus Christ so he can avoid the same fate.
C. Express condolences to your co-worker because he just lost his son, and do not mention homosexuality at all.

Personally I have nothing against homosexuality, so of course C is the obvious answer. A is right out! Yet sadly there are a few nutjobs who think A is the thing to do. At a time in my life when I was a Christian who believed homosexuality was wrong, I can imagine myself being torn between B and C. I believe that I might have thought of this as a good opportunity to share the gospel, and I would have attributed this idea to the Holy Spirit, but I also believe my conscience would have been telling me that this is not an appropriate time to be pushing religion. As fellow humans, we ought to treat each other as we would want to be treated. When someone is in need of comfort and understanding, we ought to be listeners, not preachers.

This hypothetical situation reminds me of Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer's Unwritten Order of Things talk, in which he said that funerals should be about preaching the gospel, not about remembering the deceased. This makes me want to throw up. Not only that someone would think this characterization of funerals is appropriate, but that they would use their considerable influence to demand such behavior of all good believers. My conscience would not allow me to ignore the deceased at his own funeral, and I would hope I'm not the only one who finds this unwritten order of things repugnant.

This kind of "conscience vs. spirit" quandary used to happen to me all the time as a Christian. Airplane rides were the worst. I never felt comfortable pushing my religion on anyone else, particularly if they hadn't initiated the conversation by asking about it. But I always felt guilty, like I should be talking to everyone about religion all the time, because that's what God wanted me to do, right?

The bottom line is that the "spirit" is usually a mental playback of something someone else told you to do. It might be the right thing to do, or it might not. Your conscience represents your own beliefs and values. If you perceive a conflict between the two, follow your conscience. You're the one who has to live with yourself, so live by your own ideals.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Korihor was right

As I sat down next to my wife before the Sunday school lesson at church yesterday, the words "All things denote there is a God" were written on the blackboard at the front of the room. I thought, "Oh, this is just going to be great." The class was just what you would expect, kind of a rah-rah session for theism in general and Christianity in particular, with heavy emphasis on Mormonism in ultraparticular.

The lesson was about Korihor, a man who is one of the most famous atheists and anti-Christ characters in the Book of Mormon. In the LDS church, the word "Korihor" is basically synonymous with "rotten, anti-Mormon, atheist scum" and everyone knows that in the story of Korihor, he says obviously ridiculous things that are not worth considering. A few months ago (well after my disaffection), I reread the Korihor story and was surprised to discover that I agreed with almost everything he said. In fact, Korihor lays out a fairly lucid argument for atheism, which is especially amazing since this is supposed to have occurred in ancient America in 76 B.C. It's too bad the story ends with Korihor admitting he always really believed in God and was just lying because the devil told him to, after which Korihor is trampled to death by everyone who had previously listened to him. No, I am not making this up. Read on, it's worth it.

I'll be quoting excerpts, but if you'd like to read the whole Book of Mormon account of Korihor, you can do so here. It's probably a 5-minute read.

When we first see Korihor, he is preaching that Christ will not come (remember, this is 76 B.C., so Christ hasn't come yet) and the prophecies of Christ are foolish because no one can see the future. At this point, the class instructor pointed out the paradox that Korihor is claiming no one can see the future, then claiming that he can see the future because he knows Christ will not come. But is that what he said? Let's take a look.

12 And this Anti-Christ, whose name was Korihor, (and the law could have no hold upon him) began to preach unto the people that there should be no Christ. And after this manner did he preach, saying:
13 O ye that are bound down under a foolish and a vain hope, why do ye yoke yourselves with such foolish things? Why do ye look for a Christ? For no man can know of anything which is to come.
14 Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.
15 How do ye know of their surety? Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see; therefore ye cannot know that there shall be a Christ.

He didn't say that he knows Christ will not come. He said that no one can know whether Christ will come. In the absence of evidence, it is reasonable to abstain from belief. This is not the same thing as claiming a sure knowledge of the non-existence of something, which is of course impossible. Technically it's impossible to truly claim a sure knowledge of anything at all, but that's a technicality. What Korihor is saying is that the probability of a Christ coming is very, very low, and it is foolish to believe such a thing without some kind of evidence.

Of course, since the Book of Mormon was published by Joseph Smith in 1830, the miraculous prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ becomes a little less miraculous. It's easy to paint a bulls-eye around an arrow you just stuck in the wall. Whether Jesus existed on the earth is a separate question, but Joseph Smith and basically everyone around him believed it. Let's hear it for "ancient prophecy" revealed in a modern context.

The instructor also made much of the idea that Korihor advocated anarchy and lawlessness, saying that whatever a person does is "no crime". Is this what Korihor said? Let's take a look.

17 And many more such things did he say unto them, telling them that there could be no atonement made for the sins of men, but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.
18 And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

It seems to me that in this context, the words "no crime" refer to the notion that our actions in this life do not merit eternal reward nor punishment. Both paragraphs are talking about Korihor's denial of the need for an atonement, because there is no life after this one. Again, this makes sense, and it does not seem to be a call for lawlessness and disorder. Yes, even atheists have a conscience, and believe it or not, even anarchists, for the most part, do not advocate chaos.

Next Korihor criticizes religious leaders for keeping the people ignorant and obedient. The instructor asked, "Are there people who make the same accusation against our church leaders today?" I answered with a vocal "yep!" There's not really much to note here, except the eerily familiarity of this next passage.

23 Now the high priest’s name was Giddonah. And Korihor said unto him: Because I do not teach the foolish traditions of your fathers, and because I do not teach this people to bind themselves down under the foolish ordinances and performances which are laid down by ancient priests, to usurp power and authority over them, to keep them in ignorance, that they may not lift up their heads, but be brought down according to thy words.
24 Ye say that this people is a free people. Behold, I say they are in bondage. Ye say that those ancient prophecies are true. Behold, I say that ye do not know that they are true.
25 Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgression of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty because of its parents.
26 And ye also say that Christ shall come. But behold, I say that ye do not know that there shall be a Christ. And ye say also that he shall be slain for the sins of the world—
27 And thus ye lead away this people after the foolish traditions of your fathers, and according to your own desires; and ye keep them down, even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labors of their hands, that they durst not look up with boldness, and that they durst not enjoy their rights and privileges.
28 Yea, they durst not make use of that which is their own lest they should offend their priests, who do yoke them according to their desires, and have brought them to believe, by their traditions and their dreams and their whims and their visions and their pretended mysteries, that they should, if they did not do according to their words, offend some unknown being, who they say is God—a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Whew, that was a run-on sentence if I ever saw one. But notice the continual repetition of the words, "ye do not know", "ye do not know". That's the main beef here. Religion makes an awful lot of claims to knowledge that no one can truly know. And yet religion (one in particular I have in mind) can make huge demands of your time, energy, and money. All in the name of a being who never has been seen or known, who never was nor ever will be.

Now we get to the meat of the argument between Alma (the believer) and Korihor (the unbeliever). They really lay their main points on the table. Here is Alma's:

39 Now Alma said unto him: Will ye deny again that there is a God, and also deny the Christ? For behold, I say unto you, I know there is a God, and also that Christ shall come.
40 And now what evidence have ye that there is no God, or that Christ cometh not? I say unto you that ye have none, save it be your word only.

Wait a sec. Pause. Again with asking Korihor to prove a negative. You can't prove there is no God any more than you can prove that Bertrand Russell's teapot is not orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The burden of proof is on the party making the claim of God's existence. It is impossible to prove a negative assertion. Okay, unpause.

41 But, behold, I have all things as a testimony that these things are true; and ye also have all things as a testimony unto you that they are true; and will ye deny them? Believest thou that these things are true?
42 Behold, I know that thou believest, but thou art possessed with a lying spirit, and ye have put off the Spirit of God that it may have no place in you; but the devil has power over you, and he doth carry you about, working devices that he may destroy the children of God.

Alma has a testimony! And he knows that Korihor has a testimony too, but unfortunately the devil has power over him. It all makes sense to me now. All this talk about logic and evidence is just Satan telling lies. Carry on, then.

43 And now Korihor said unto Alma: If thou wilt show me a sign, that I may be convinced that there is a God, yea, show unto me that he hath power, and then will I be convinced of the truth of thy words.
44 But Alma said unto him: Thou hast had signs enough; will ye tempt your God? Will ye say, Show unto me a sign, when ye have the testimony of all these thy brethren, and also all the holy prophets? The scriptures are laid before thee, yea, and all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.

Again, Korihor asks for some evidence, and says he will believe if the evidence is good enough. I'm with Korihor on this one. Alma responds with a huffy accusation about "tempting God" (whatever that means), and then puts forward his best evidence. Finally, the evidence. And what is this evidence? Are you ready for it? Here it is: the words of the scriptures, the testimony of other people, the laws of physics, and everything else too. Oh my God. This is so not convincing. Korihor has just been punk'd.

Korihor's response is beautiful, and is a very concise description of the atheist position (or the agnostic position, if you prefer).

48 Now Korihor said unto him: I do not deny the existence of a God, but I do not believe that there is a God; and I say also, that ye do not know that there is a God; and except ye show me a sign, I will not believe.

Show me the evidence! How much clearer can you get? Unfortunately for Korihor, at this point the story takes a turn for the surreal. You see, in Korihor's universe, God really does exist and he is pissed at Korihor. Also, if you've read the Book of Mormon, you know that the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. Always. I attribute this to a certain naiveté on the part of Joseph Smith, who was in his early twenties when he published the Book of Mormon. But I guess you could also attribute it to how everything really happened in ancient America. Take your pick.

Finally, the denouement. Alma calls down the wrath of God and strikes Korihor dumb.

52 And Korihor put forth his hand and wrote, saying: I know that I am dumb, for I cannot speak; and I know that nothing save it were the power of God could bring this upon me; yea, and I always knew that there was a God.
53 But behold, the devil hath deceived me; for he appeared unto me in the form of an angel, and said unto me: Go and reclaim this people, for they have all gone astray after an unknown God. And he said unto me: There is no God; yea, and he taught me that which I should say. And I have taught his words; and I taught them because they were pleasing unto the carnal mind; and I taught them, even until I had much success, insomuch that I verily believed that they were true; and for this cause I withstood the truth, even until I have brought this great curse upon me.

What a terrific ending! Not only is Korihor proven wrong by the power of God, he also admits that he was lying the entire time, he always really believed in God, and the devil told him to say all those things! Brilliant! Okay, I admit, this is not the greatest ending I've ever read. In fact, it's sort of the lamest of all possible lame endings. We actually had an interesting conversation going between faith and faithlessness. Each side was putting forth its best argument, and we almost had a debate. And then deus ex machina literally comes down and blows it all to hell with a miracle and a confession. Fuck.

Is it impossible for an atheist to hold his convictions honestly? Must he be lying? Must he really believe in God, deep down inside? Must he be a servant of the devil? The answer to these questions is, of course, NO. Atheists are just like anyone else, except that they don't happen to believe in any supernatural beings called gods. The Korihor story condemns and demonizes those who simply have a single, reasonable request for perhaps a tiny bit of evidence, if it wouldn't be too much trouble. Make that request, and Bad Things will happen to you. If the moral of this story weren't explicit enough, witness the epilogue.

56 And it came to pass that the curse was not taken off of Korihor; but he was cast out, and went about from house to house begging for his food.
57 Now the knowledge of what had happened unto Korihor was immediately published throughout all the land; yea, the proclamation was sent forth by the chief judge to all the people in the land, declaring unto those who had believed in the words of Korihor that they must speedily repent, lest the same judgments would come unto them.
58 And it came to pass that they were all convinced of the wickedness of Korihor; therefore they were all converted again unto the Lord; and this put an end to the iniquity after the manner of Korihor. And Korihor did go about from house to house, begging food for his support.
59 And it came to pass that as he went forth among the people, yea, among a people who had separated themselves from the Nephites and called themselves Zoramites, being led by a man whose name was Zoram—and as he went forth amongst them, behold, he was run upon and trodden down, even until he was dead.
60 And thus we see the end of him who perverteth the ways of the Lord; and thus we see that the devil will not support his children at the last day, but doth speedily drag them down to hell.

QED. Unless you want this to happen to you, repent and serve the Lord, bitches.