The brilliance of humanity & the shackles of religion.

November 12, 2014

Rosetta's Philae touchdown.

Rosetta’s Philae touchdown.

Since the dawn of humanity, we have been a species addicted to discovery. Our ape-like ancestors braved the unknown as they left Africa and spread to every corner of the Earth. We tamed fire, and we built machines to carry us across oceans. We innovated with bronze tools and placed a flag on the Moon. Our natural curiosity is a wonderful trait that despite attempts throughout history, cannot be suppressed. Over ten years since its launch, the European Space Agency successfully landed a man-made machine – Rosetta – on the surface of comet 67P travelling at speeds of up to 135,000km/h. This wonderful ingenuity is a reminder of the greatness that humanity can achieve.

Our natural inclination toward discovery is a product of our desire to understand the World around us. Today, the civilised World has the scientific method – with a flawless track record – to keep that desire to understand on the right path, free from dogma and superstition, continuously re-evaluating itself, attempting to prove itself wrong, and open to all regardless of thoughts, words, beliefs, gender, ethnicity, or sexuality. It is at its core non-discriminatory and open to all who seek knowledge. This wonderful framework for applying Mankind’s continued search for knowledge is a freedom we may take for granted, whilst much of the World clings as they do to archaic and very much discriminatory methods of discerning knowledge, of which only a select few unjustifiable privilege themselves according to old myths, to the misery and detriment of everybody else. We know this as religion.

Whilst the scientific method this week landed a craft on the surface of a speeding comet, Pakistan arrested Tufail Haider on ‘suspicion’ of voicing his opinion about the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately, Haider’s opinion differed from those who bizarrely believe themselves to be granted the inherent privilege of violently punishing anyone who happens to think differently. It is the obscenity of considering the lives of others to be so chained and dependent on your beliefs only. Haider – who was Shiite – was then murdered by a policeman with an axe. This comes a few days after the young couple Sajjad Maseeh and his pregnant wife Shama Bibi were attacked by a mob, had their legs broken so they couldn’t escape, and were thrown to their deaths into a kiln after being wrapped in cotton wool (to catch fire quickly) by hundreds of people, for “blasphemy”. It was rumoured that they had burnt a page of the Qur’an. To that barbaric mob, burning human beings alive is far more acceptable, than accidentally burning a page of something the mob quite likes to think is divine (of which, they haven’t actually offered any evidence for). Similarly, in the case of Haider, the police referred to him as ‘mentally unsound’, rather than the policeman willing to kill a man with an axe for expressing negative thoughts about a group of people who lived 1400 years ago.

Humanity is capable of placing a man-made craft on a speeding comet, whilst murdering other human beings – including a pregnant woman – for saying unkind words about a magic invisible sky man who cannot do His own dirty work. It seems to me that if we are to base concepts of justice on how offended one may feel by the beliefs or words of others, it is non-believers – insulted and threatened on practically every page of most Holy books – who should be the main beneficiaries of such a policy.

Whilst my fellow atheists at times tell me that at its core, religion is the promotion of peace and love, I see nothing but what Sam Harris recently described as the mother lode of bad ideas. It would seem self evident to me that if religions are to be considered fundamentally peaceful, then the fundamentalists must be peaceful. The opposite is the case. Human suffering caused directly by religious dogma, is a clear result of anchoring human knowledge & moral ideals, and the human search for knowledge to a single time and place – often patriarchal – far removed from our own and that we as a species outgrew both intellectually and morally centuries ago. Indeed, a significant – if not the most significant – barrier to individual freedom, happiness and social and scientific progression, is the assumed privilege of religious supremacists. Over too vast a geographical spread, it plunges individuals whom tend not to fit its very narrow moral structure into fear and silence, which not only robs the individual of their right to a happy and dignified life, but also robs humanity of countless great minds. What if the cure for cancer is in the mind of a gay man in Uganda right now?

Humanity cannot be so great until it universally accepts that no single ideology or religion is inherently gifted the privilege to control the lives of others, to tell others that they are not to be included in society, or to withhold the talents of much of the population based solely on their skin tone, or gender, or belief, or sexuality. The minds and lips of all, free to believe and to utter according to the conscience of the individual alone, is the absolute prerequisite for a free and civilised society, and one in which the talents of all can be utilised. I see no greater flaw in our species than our ability to be so wonderful, to move with the times, to change based on the constant updating of human understanding, to free those traditionally oppressed by unjustifiable power structures, to create machines capable of landing on what is essentially a speck of sand in a cosmic ocean; yet at the same time be so willing to coerce and harm others in order to enforce – and make excuses for – the mother lode of bad ideas, regardless of the endless misery it so clearly causes.


‘Islam without extremes’ – by Mustafa Akyol. A Critique.

October 12, 2014

islamwithoutextremes

Perhaps you may think it an exaggeration, but I am quite convinced that the World will be shaped over the next several decades predominantly by how it responds to the threat from Islamist extremists. More than simply a war between those groups like Hizb or ISIS and the rest of the World, more than a war for the freedom of human beings from the oppressive structures imposed by supremacists, this is a civil war within Islam for its future. Whether Islam comes out of that war as a religion for the individual; an inner, spiritual system of guidance, or whether it is to be defined as a political structure that extends beyond the individual and chains others to dictates, can only be decided by Muslims. Attempts within the Islamic community to provide counter-narratives to extreme illiberal Islamist dogmas are vital. We do see this through the important work of think tanks like ‘Quilliam‘, or groups like ‘British Muslims for Secular Democracy‘. Writers can also have a lasting affect on how the war for Islam is shaped. I recently finished reading ‘Islam without extremes’ by Mustafa Akyol. I thought I’d share my thoughts on the book here.

I have several criticisms and I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. It is worth noting from the beginning that ‘Islam without extremes: A Muslim case for liberty‘ is an excellent attempt to dispel the myth that prevails in both Islamist quarters, and the Western far right, that groups like Hizb are in fact synonymous with Islam. They are not. Islam is a wide spectrum of belief that encompasses violent extremism, and secular liberalism. Akyol’s book presents a far more liberal, and secular strand of Islamic history that tends to get drowned out by Wahhabi interpretations in recent years. The book’s discussion of the back and forth fight for Islam over the centuries between traditionists and rationalists is compelling and fascinating reading. That being said, the book seems to present Islam less as a faith that promotes liberty, and more as a faith that is illiberal, and anti-secular, but a little bit less so than extremists suggest. And so as a ‘case for liberty’, it isn’t successful, and I’ll to give my reasons for that conclusion:

For example, after a brief discussion of pre-Islamic Arab society, in which women were not permitted the right to own property nor inheritance, Akyol says:

“… the Qur’an also decreed that females should receive a share of inheritance. It was only half of what their male siblings would get, but in a society in which men were considered to be responsible for the care of the whole household, this was a generous amount.”

- This seems to me to be a way to have it both ways. The very basis of Islamic belief, is that the Qur’an is the final message from God. It is the book of rules for all time. There will be no other message. It comes from a being that transcends time. He is able to give a new message, in more enlightened times if he wished, that ensures equal inheritance regardless of gender. But that isn’t the fundamental idea of Islam; that the Qur’an is the final message. ‘Rights’ are defined for eternity. And yet, more often than not, Muslims invoke the ‘context of the time’ excuse for illiberal Quranic rules. Akyol does that here. Whether the share of inheritance is nothing, or whether it is half that which men are to gain, it is illiberal. An improvement is irrelevant if it is to end at that improvement, and not be permitted further improvement toward equal treatment. In this case, the Quranic rule on inheritance is an institutional patriarchal structure, and worse than that, it is to be instituted for all time. Any further improvement would be an admission that the Islamic God was constrained by the time period, or that He was simply wrong. The ‘context’ excuse seems to me to be an attempt to placate in the mind of the believer, the suspicion that the Qur’an may not be all that liberal after all. A recognition that the individual believer has morally outgrown his/her God.

On page 67, Akyol says:

“The dhimma system was just one of the many implications of a basic idea that the Qur’an introduced: Humans have rights ordained by God, and no other human can violate those rights. This idea would allow Muslims to create a civilisation based on the rule of law”.

- I find these sentences to be self defeating. My rights have already been violated by other human beings, the moment those human beings decide for themselves that my life is to be chained to their faith and that the ‘rule of law’ is to be based on that one faith. Law is subsequently based less on evidence, if it contradicts the dogmatic beliefs of the privileged religion (more often than not, the privileged religion tends to be very patriarchal and very heterosexual, and so – surprisingly – heterosexual men seem to benefit the most from upholding that system). Institutional privilege for one faith is not a good example of the ‘case for liberty’. Quite the opposite. It insists that anchoring moral standards to one place and one time, is an excellent base for law, and that all must abide by it, whether Muslim or not, whilst those who aren’t Muslim must pay a tax to uphold this system.

In an attempt to promote Muhammad as a friend of Jews and Christians, Akyol tells us – on page 60-61 – that the Prophet spared the frescoes of Jesus and Mary when he stormed the Ka’ba, and that the Qur’an granted the right of Christians and Jews to live and practice their faith… under the rule of Islam. You will perhaps note several problems with trying to argue the case for liberty within a faith whose leader destroys the Gods of other faiths, saving only those that are depicted in the Qur’an, and then has the nerve to “grant the right” for others to live according to their own conscience… under the rule of Islam. This is not liberty. A man fighting for any concept of liberty would not have destroyed the Gods of others, nor have believed himself divinely ordained to decide upon the rights and the lives of others. I may dislike the Christian & Islamic God, I don’t then destroy Churches and Mosques. We rightly prosecute those who do.

Muhammad – by Akyol’s own admission – has now destroyed the Gods of other Pagan systems of belief. If I were to claim to have received a revelation from God, and proceeded to destroy shrines to other faiths proclaiming “truth has come! Falsehood has vanished!” – which, along with many other Quranic verses and traditions of the Prophet significantly negates the ‘no compulsion’ line – whilst telling Muslims that my new God has granted them certain rights, I would expect to be told that I do not get the privilege of handing out rights according to my own personal beliefs alone whilst destroying the right of others to believe according to their own conscience. The lives of others, are not mine to control or define. The same is true here. Muhammad was not promoting liberal values, he was assuming for himself a significant position of privilege to control the lives of others. Akyol then seems to accept that Muhammad instituted a sort of semi-theocracy with new liberties thrown in. He quotes Karen Armstrong who said:

“Muhammad could not produce a full-blown individualism to satisfy our present Western liberal ideas, but he had made a start.”

- The word ‘start’ should be replaced with the word ‘end’, because again, the Qur’an is the final message. She is right that Muhammad could not produce a full blown liberal, secular, democratic society protecting the civil liberties of all, at that moment and place in time. We as atheists must accept that he was just a man – impressive at times, flawed and disastrous at others – but believers who attempt to promote Islam as a faith that enshrines liberty – as Akyol attempted to do – have the uneasy burden of accepting that their God transcends time, and so the rules He sets out, and the man whom he chooses to empower with that message, must be the perfect form of liberty, and must not be rules that others over the centuries will try to mimic, causing misery across the globe. This is the problem of foresight – a subject I wrote on here – shared by the God of all the Abrahamic traditions. Indeed, those rules – if they are to extend beyond the individual in any way – must protect and empower men and women, muslims and atheists, homosexuals and heterosexuals, of all ethnicities, without prominence or privilege to any sect of any faith, otherwise it is simply a book of oppression and no amount of redefinition can fix that. And whilst Mustafa Akyol’s book certainly provides a narrative that takes the more extreme elements of recent years away from the faith, it fails to produce a narrative that its title – ‘A Muslim case for liberty‘ – suggests, and fails to tear Islam away from political ideology by entertaining the notion that it is perfectly reasonable for Muslims to define the rights of non-Muslims.

The conclusion I came to after reading Akyol’s book – and getting past the predictable religious tendency to blame everyone else except religious dogma for its deficiencies – was that Islam is by its nature illiberal, it is just a little less illiberal than the extremists believe, and was a little more liberating than previous Theocracies centuries ago. A leap forward once upon a time perhaps, but thoroughly archaic today.


The Mormon Delusion Part II: The Book of Abraham.

September 10, 2014

Believed to be a  daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, by Lucian Foster in 1843.

Believed to be a daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, by Lucian Foster in 1843.

When one is to look back over our life, it is often true that we tell ourselves that we couldn’t have predicted we’d be where we are now, ten years ago. The same tends to be true for historical events. When Antonio Lebolo discovered several papyri buried with Egyptian mummies just outside of Thebes in Egypt around 1820, it would have taken a mind gifted with prophecy to predict those small papyri would be considered sacred scripture by the Church of Latter Day Saints some 194 years later.

Lebolo kept the papyri and mummies in his possession until his death in 1830, and by 1833, they were in the collection of Michael Chandler in New York. For the next few years Chandler displayed and sold the artifacts across the United States. Meanwhile, in Kirtland Ohio, the Latter Day Saints were growing in number, around the claims of their prophet Joseph Smith. Smith had claimed to have received and translated golden tablets from a – still undiscovered – ancient Egyptian language known as ‘reformed Egyptian’, into English, directed by the angel Moroni producing tales of an ancient pre-Columbian Israelite civilisation in North America; The Book of Mormon. The clear fraudulent nature of Smith’s claims I wrote on here – “The Mormon Delusion”.

In 1835, two years after collecting the artifacts, Chandler arrived in Kirtland with the papyri and the mummies. The LDS townsfolk – awaiting further revelations from God to His chosen prophet – excitedly pointed Chandler in the direction of Joseph Smith, since they knew he could translate ancient Egyptian following his divine revelations. Smith immediately told Chandler that he’d buy the papyri, and that he absolutely could translate the language, claiming to already recognise several phrases. Excitement gripped the LDS community. When he sat down with his scribes – Phelps and Cowdary – Smith found something astonishing:

“I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.”

- One of the scrolls, according to Smith, was written by Abraham himself. It took seven years – and a lot of giving up and moving onto other ideas – before Smith finished his translation into what was now termed the ‘Book of Abraham‘. His followers – including the fourth President of the LDS Church Wilford Woodruff – were convinced in the authenticity of the work, and thus the unique status of Smith as a prophet of God. Writing in the 1840s, Woodruff noted:

“Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God.”

- The Book of Abraham has been a central text in the sacred writings of the Church of Latter Day Saints ever since. Most convinced of its authenticity as a text written by Abraham, translated by Joseph Smith.

When examining Smith’s claim, it is important to first note that according to his absurd account, the monotheist Israelites hadn’t preserved the writings of Abraham himself, instead, the ancient polytheist Egyptians had preserved the writings, and stored them for posterity in a tomb. Immediately alarm bells should begin to ring.

In an age of experiment, and discovery, of enlightenment and skepticism, Smith’s claims were tested almost immediately. In the 1850s, renowned Egyptologist Théodule Devéria – responsible for studying a collection at the Louvre – examined Smith’s interpretations, including images Smith had copied from the scrolls to his book complete with interpretations. One of the images:

facsimile1
- According to Smith, figure 3 in this image is the priest of Elkenah about to sacrifice Abraham (figure 2). But Devéria and later Egyptologists – to this day – conclude that figure 3 is in fact Anubis, resurrecting Osiris (figure 2). Smith claimed figure 1 was an angel of God, whilst Egyptologists know that figure 1 is in fact the soul of Osiris in the form of a hawk. The image is actually from The Book of Breathings. The LDS website clings to Smith’s interpretation.

Further, the Egyptologists of the 19th Century concluded that due to the fact that in Smith’s image, the god Anubis (figure 3) has a human head rather than a Jackal’s head, the head must have been missing on the original papyrus, and Smith must just have used his imagination. Later, when the papyrus was actually discovered, it turned out that the head of Anubis was indeed missing, leading Smith not only to invent the translation, but completely redraw Egyptian gods. It wasn’t only Anubis that Smith redrew. Here is the actual papyrus that Smith used:

josephsmithpapyrus
- You will note the missing head of Anubis, as well as the missing head of Osiris. Osiris should have a human head, but Smith drew him with a bird’s head. Figure 7 on the image is referred to as The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah, when in fact, it is the Nile God Hapi. In fact, every figure that Smith names, he gets wrong. Commenting on another image that Smith had wrongly translated, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, Archibald Sayce wrote:

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud …. Smith has turned the goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”

Conveniently, we don’t have the golden tablets that Smith ‘found’, given that the angel Moroni took them back the moment he’d finished translating them, but the papyri were not from a divine source, they were seen by many – not least because Smith had incorrectly copied a couple of pictures into the book. The scrolls were considered destroyed in the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, where they were on display in a museum, after being sold by Smith’s widow Emma. That is until they were rediscovered in 1960s, studied by Egyptologists, and translated using modern techniques. Predictably – and confirming Théodule Devéria’s excellent debunking – the translated papyri bear no resemblance to the ‘Book of Abraham’ as translated by Smith, and were in fact simple and common funerary texts from ancient Egypt. The images, and the text; Smith had invented the whole thing.

And yet, despite the clear fraud Smith had committed, and its implications for the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham to this day is included in The Pearl of Great Price – the canonical text of Mormonism – and contains LDS doctrine fundamental to the faith, including exaltation and priesthood within the church. Mormon apologists go to great lengths to explain away the fraud. The only explanation I have for this, is that the need and the desire to believe so strongly in a faith that has been ingrained since childhood, and forms a major part of an individual’s identity and community, is stronger for many, than the desire to accept that it might – and quite likely is – not true. There is a refusal to move from the basic position that Smith was a Prophet, and so all explanations that arise seem to be a desperate attempt to save that status. Mormonism seems to me to epitomise that desire to protect a strongly held faith at the cost of critical faculties used far more efficiently in every other context. This is the Mormon delusion.

For Part I of ‘The Mormon Delusion’ click here.


Rep. John Dingell: Member of Congress for more than a quarter of its history.

September 9, 2014

Rep. John Dingell with President Kennedy, and seated next to President Obama for the signing of the ACA.

Rep. John Dingell with President Kennedy, and seated next to President Obama for the signing of the ACA.

It is Congressional primary day for five states in the US, and the final dash for votes in the mid-terms is hotting up against a backdrop of government shutdowns, threats to sue the President, refusals to work together, and a battle for the heart of the Republican Party. It is indeed an intriguing period of US Congressional history. There is however one story that threatens to go unnoticed this election season; the retirement of 58 year veteran of the House, Rep.John Dingell (D-Dearborn, MI).

Dingell is the longest uninterrupted serving member of the US Congress in its 225 year history, with a tenure spanning more than a quarter of its entire history. It is an incredible achievement and one in which the Congressman from Michigan has witnessed the shaping of the United States in ways in which no other Congressman can claim.

As a teenager in 1941, and a member of the United States House of Representatives Page programme, Dingell was on the floor of the House as President Roosevelt delivered his day of infamy speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was later elected to Congress in 1956 – the year the World first heard the name ‘Elvis Presley’, and the Federal Highway Act had not yet been signed into being – and has consistently attained over 60% of the vote – with the exception of just two occasions. He was a member of Congress on that day in November when two bullets struck down the promise of President Kennedy. He was sworn into Congress 12 days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, challenging the poisonous white supremacist attitudes of the 20th Century United States, and announced his retirement from Congress during the second term of the nation’s first African American President. He supported, witnessed and presided over the House that saw LBJ signing Medicare into law. His tenure saw the rise and fall of the Cold War era, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, the Reagan years, and both Iraq wars. In recent years, Dingell sat next to President Obama as the ‘Affordable Healthcare Act’ was signed into law in 2010, an achievement Dingell was proud to have been a part of, despite not meeting his desire to see universal healthcare in the United States; a cause he had championed by introducing a universal healthcare bill in each of his terms in Congress.

Son of a ‘New Deal’ Democratic Congressman, Dingell is known to be forceful and intimidating in the corridors of Congress. But he gets the job done. Perhaps Dingell’s greatest legislative achievements have been in promoting environmental protections and regulations, cleaning the air and the water and protecting species in the United States, whilst paradoxically commanding the scorn of environmentalists for his staunch support of the Detroit auto industry (including steerage of the 2009 bailouts). In 1972, Dingell authored the ‘Clean Water Act’ expanding greatly the regulatory framework of the 1948 ‘Federal Water Pollution Control Act’, keeping the waters of the United States clean for decades to come. He played important roles in the ‘National Energy Conservation Policy Act’ in 1978, the ‘Marine Mammal Protection Act’ and the ‘Pollution Prevention Act’ of 1990. He penned the ‘Endangered Species Act’, and he advocated and lobbied for the creation of the ‘Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge’; North America’s only international wildlife refuge. He also spent 14 years as Chair of the immensely powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, between 1981-1994, and again in 2007-2008. Without Dingell, the foundation of environmental protections in the United States might not exist. Indeed, for his work on environmental issues in the 109th Congress, The League of Conservation Voters gave Dingell a rating of 100%.

However, there remains a paradox. Dingell’s place as top-ranking Democrat on the Energy Committee took an odd turn in recent years, when Henry Waxman (D-Calif) challenged and beat Dingell for the chairmanship of the committee, through concerns that Dingell’s financial support from big auto industry – along with previous attempts to defend big auto industry in Detroit from certain sections of environmental legislation – may prove detrimental to Waxman’s desire to cap CO2 emissions. In 2007, Dingell managed to win several – albeit small – concessions for the auto-industry as Democrats worked to raise the fuel economy standard.

Alongside his defence and protection of the auto-industry, Dingell receives criticism from fellow progressive Democrats for his A+ rating from the NRA. It was Dingell who managed to gain an exemption for firearms from the 1972 ‘Consumer Product Safety Act’. A hugely damaging legacy for gun safety in the United States. Following the Columbine massacre the Senate voted to close a loophole that exempted unlicensed gun dealers from conducting any background checks at gun shows before selling a firearm. Dingell disapproved and offered an alternative that included changing the language for what is to be considered a ‘gun show’ to a very limited scope, and reducing the time taken to perform a background check from 72 hours, to 24 hours.

To some, he was a protector of big auto-industry whose ideas ran out long ago, a roadblock to meaningful emissions standards, a staunch advocate of gun ownership, and an advertisement for term limits, but to others he was the Congressional architect of landmark environmental protections that would last decades, a legacy that no other member of Congress comes close to matching. Whatever one may think of Rep. John Dingell, it is hard not to admire a man who has worked at the heart of, and contributed to the shaping of the United States, swimming the murky waters of Congress, and witnessing the transformation of America on so many levels, for close to seven decades. His is a story to be remembered during this election season.


Re: The $100,000 atheist challenge.

September 5, 2014

Dear Joshua Feuerstein,

Your recent YouTube video challenging atheists to disprove god for $100,000 has, as you know, received a lot of attention and criticism. I thought I’d offer my thoughts on why I am an atheist, and why it is unlikely that your God exists, because, well, I could really use that $100,000. I have four quick points I wanted to make:

Firstly, it’s important to note what the atheist proposition actually is. Contrary to your statement that we’re trying to claim there is no god that exists outside of our individual knowledge, we invite you to provide evidence that there is, at that point we can have a meaningful discussion. You cannot just assert the existence of a god, and decide it’s meaningful, without it actually based on anything other than you just asserting it. I could assert that I have an invisible, silent monkey on my shoulder, and the fact that the claim cannot be tested and proved or negated doesn’t render it more likely to be true, it renders it the opposite. Very few – if any at all – of us would ever claim with certainty that god doesn’t exist. We simply claim that there is no reason to believe god does exist, and that believers throughout history have never provided a substantial reason for us to believe god exists. The fact that we provide evidence that gravity exists, rather than forcing people by the sword to accept gravity without criticism, implies that evidence can stand on its own whilst precarious falsehoods require coercion to survive.
We do not claim certainty on anything. We do not even claim certainty on the Earth being a sphere. We assert that we are 99.9999% sure that the Earth is a sphere, but we leave 0.0001% open to doubt, because doubt is what drives scientific progress. We do not shut out all arguments that the Earth is not a sphere, instead we weigh the evidence. If the evidence for one position holds greater than the evidence for the other, we accept it. We want to disprove assertions, in order to come to stronger assertions about the nature of nature. So again, my proposition is that you have not provided any reason for me to believe a god exists; this is entirely different from insisting with certainty that god doesn’t exist. Further, by weighing the arguments for gods existence (usually the cosmological argument – which I try to refute here), and the teleological (from design/fine tuning) argument (which has been masterfully refuted by Victor Stenger – though I’d argue that an infinite and unrestricted god could create life for any possible universe, and so the ‘fine tuning’ is rendered unnecessary), and the moral dimension (which you predictably brought up with regards Hitler, and which I wrote on here) I come to the conclusion that I am 99.999% sure that god doesn’t exist. And since you asked for “proof or evidence“, I thought I’d provide what I’d consider evidence that god doesn’t exist.

Secondly, since all the arguments for the existence of god seem to be philosophical in nature, the refutations must be philosophical (when you provide material evidence, we can then scrutinise and attempt to refute it in the way we do with everything else). And from a philosophical point of reference – whilst based on what we know of the observable universe – the idea of a god seems to me to be entirely self defeating. Prof. Hawking notes:

“Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang.”

- With that in mind, let’s examine the implications. If time began at the big bang, by implication everything that exists – since existence requires time (unless you have evidence to the contrary?) – has therefore always existed. There was never a moment when ‘nothing’ could exist. There was never a ‘before’ the big bang, given that ‘before’ denotes a measurement of time, and is entirely reliant on time existing. Also reliant on time, is cause. Since the cosmological argument argues that everything that begins to exist has a creator, we must be consistent and accept that everything that begins to exist, was created in time and space. If god therefore created time and space, He would have required time and space in order to create time and space. We are left with three options; 1) Accepting the absurdity of that. 2) Asserting that god exists in another realm of space and time, that he used to create this realm of space and time. Or 3) Causation does not require space and time at all. If we take option 1, well, you’re close to owing me $100,000. If we take option 2, then you need to provide evidence for a time outside of time, it’s characteristics, and whether or not that realm of time preceded god, which then becomes an endless chain of realms of time, before you give up and accept that what we know of time appears to render god obsolete. Or we could take option 3, which is to say, we require abandoning everything we know of space and time, and starting from scratch, which would only eventually lead us back to where we are now.

Thirdly, there is nothing in nature that requires divine intervention in order to exist. Life itself, did not require the hand of a creator. The entire basis of modern medicine, of modern biology, zoology, genetics, botany, is based on evolution by natural selection (note, this is different from the social Darwinist example you raise when you ask “how is Hitler not the fittest?”). If you seek to suggest that the beautiful tapestry of nature came about not by natural selection, but by divine magic, I await your thesis disproving the basis for all modern biology, zoology, medicine, genetics and botany and replacing with a theistic model. Good luck with that. Whilst it’s true that the biochemical study of the origins of life are yet to fully understand how life sprang into existence, there is no reason to place god in the gap. Indeed, the god-in-the-gap answer has a terrible track record of being wrong on every occasion, and so there’s little reason to suspect it is true on this occasion. By contrast, the scientific method has a pretty great track record.

Fourthly, a quick mention of your suggestion that the knowledge that murder is wrong – and moral principles – came from a divine source. You are right that our ability to deduce right from wrong is an in-built concept (though devout religious folk over the centuries appear to be the exception, as they murdered their way across the globe). But a lack of divine moral structure, does not imply that all moral conclusions must therefore be equal, dismissed as equal opinions. Our understanding of right and wrong is the result of a complex set of ideas. Murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We rationalise, and we empathise, and we come to conclusions based on what we understand at that point in time. Sometimes we get it wrong, but we progress. Empathy is an evolved trait from the earliest days of mammal life. From taking care of young, to group living in order to survive, empathy was required for species survival. This isn’t a guess. neurologists invest vast time, and effort into understanding the evolution of empathy. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. As we expanded, grew together, asked questions, created art, philosophised, our social needs evolved with them, and morality became very complex. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out – which God would have known, given that he can see all of time and space – implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

Lastly, I think a far better explanation for the origins of the concept of god stem from our evolved sense of curiosity and language to convey that curiosity through art, stories, music etc. At the primitive age of our species, a time in which rainbows were inexplicable and an earthquake was a sure sign that a small tribe had angered god, we had no explanations based in observable science. But we do have wonderful imaginations, a desire to understand, and we appeal to forces beyond our understanding, because we’re influenced by mystery. At a time when tribes across the World wished to explain the origins of their community, we see wonderful stories of Romulus of Rome, we see P’an Ku’s egg in China, we see the Lakota tell the tale of Ite, and we see the people in around Judea tell the story of Adam & Eve. We are a beautifully imaginative species, but when we apply the scientific method based on observed and repeated evidence, instead of coming closer to proving god, we shrink the space in which he resides, whilst at the same time sending Voyager 1 to the very limits of the solar system and beyond, and creating the internet for you to issue challenges. The scientific method works, and it hasn’t led to god. That is why I am atheist.

Sincerely,

Futile Democracy.


For the love of the Kennedys.

September 4, 2014

If you have a job and you want to get it done, and you don’t care how it’s done, send Paul Corbin out to do it.
- Helen Keyes, A Kennedy campaigner.

It was Presidential debate night, on October 28th, 1980. Only six years had passed since a United States President had stood down from office in disgrace, for the first and only time in its history. Many of Nixon’s top staffers would end up behind bars. The waters of US politics were now murkier than ever. The smell of scandal was the last thing either candidate going into the 1980 debate could afford to become associated with.

As debate night approached, Reagan was leading in most polls by an average of three percentage points. A healthy lead, but not substantial enough to ensure a victory, as Carter regained popularity following a disastrous year. After the debate, Reagan extended his lead to take a 9 percentage point victory at the election, carrying 44 states. But all was not squeaky clean in the Reagan camp. Somehow, the Reagan team of David Stockman, Frank Hodsoll and James Baker had gotten their hands on President Carter’s briefing papers and notes of preparation for the debate, stolen from the White House. Scandal ensued.

The Reagan administration did not divulge the fact that they had access to Carter’s papers, until the story leaked in 1983. The scandal remained in the public eye, leading to an investigation by U.S. House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service’s Subcommittee on Human Resources. The investigation interviewed David Stockman, who insisted that the briefing papers only mentioned issues to discuss, rather than question and answer tactics and so weren’t of any value. Frank Hodsoll however insisted the papers did contain question and answer tactics. The investigation uncovered much evidence of vast wrongdoing, yet concluded that contradictions in the statements of key Reagan staff were the result of:

“…the professed lack of memory or knowledge on the part of those in possession of the documents”

- The case was never brought to a resolution, and no one knows who handed those documents to the Reagan team – though Baker told the investigation that William Casey (Reagan’s campaign manager) had first handed him the documents – But one name sticks out as the original source: Paul Corbin.

In his book, ‘Rendezvous with Destiny‘, Craig Shirley asserts that Corbin – a Democratic Aide to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge against Carter – handed the documents to the Reagan camp as revenge for perceived ill-treatment of Kennedy by Carter during the Primaries. If true, it wouldn’t be the first time Corbin had a decisive hand in shaping an election from behind the curtain, in defence of a Kennedy.

Twenty years before the Carter-Reagan debates, Robert Kennedy asked all to live according to the Ancient Greek wish to ‘tame the savageness of man, and make gentle the life of this world‘, but throughout the late ’50s and into ’60′s RFK had no time to make gentle the life of US politics. In 1960, ex-Communist Party member and ex-con man Paul Corbin had been brought in by Robert Kennedy to aide the Kennedy campaign primarily in West Virginia, a state split between Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the necessary delegates.

The Kennedy camp – especially Bobby and Kenny O’Donnell – were growing tired of Humphrey refusing to condemn anti-Catholic sentiment in the state (a tactic Humphrey thought may win over undecided voters), using it to his advantage over the Catholic Kennedys. The goal now was to paint Humphrey as a bigot, to push liberal democrats into voting Kennedy. Suddenly, within days of Corbin being brought in, viciously anti-Catholic literature was being handed out in West Virginia, urging Catholic households never to elect an ‘agent of the Pope in Rome‘ and attributed – falsely – to the Humphrey campaign. A tactic that made Humphrey look out-dated, bigoted, and unprepared for the future of a changing Democrat Party. In his biography of Robert Kennedy, Evan Thomas calls Corbin ‘the immediate suspect‘ in the affair. The tactic – along with many others – worked. Jack Kennedy took West Virginia in the primary. Corbin had a big hand in shaping the narrative in West Virginia, through some incredibly dirty tactics, in his new found personal mission of protecting and advancing the Kennedys.

Evan Thomas notes that when Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara a few years later told RFK that he wanted Corbin to take a lie detector test over another matter, Kennedy laughed, telling the Secretary:

“Lie detector? He’d break the machine.”

- The Kennedy campaign was filled with dirty tricks leading up to the convention, not just from Corbin. At the Convention, Lyndon Johnson’s team were enraged to find their phone lines had been cut, a crime they blamed on the Kennedys. Later, when Johnson was President, Corbin was working in New Hampshire producing Kennedy-for-VP literature for the ’64 election, without running it by the President, or anyone else. Johnson was furious and demanded Corbin be fired from the DNC (a position Robert Kennedy gave him upon becoming Attorney General). RFK refused, insisting that Corbin was harmless, though Johnson had him fired anyway.

It seemed the RFK and Corbin relationship was strong, despite protests across the Democrat Party. Indeed, Joe Dolan – a Kennedy aide – referred to Corbin as ‘Robert Kennedy’s dark side‘. Back in early ’60s, the FBI released a report into Corbin’s suspected Communist ties (and conversely, his business dealings with staunch anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy) noting:

“The Attorney General seems to have completely overboard in trying to defend Corbin. He has suppressed any and all references to our report detailing Corbin’s Communist activity.”

- This is a big claim. One suspects RFK – by the time he was Attorney General – believed he owed a great deal to Corbin, which implies Corbin had a greater hand in securing the Presidency for JFK than we might ever know.

RFK’s fierce loyalty to Corbin was matched only by Corbin’s loyalty to the Kennedys, going so far as to convert to Catholicism in order that Robert and Ethel Kennedy could become his Godparents. Though even this may have had a political calculation, because at the time of Corbin’s conversion to Catholicism, he was being investigated by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, chaired by Congressman Francis Walter – a devout Catholic.

By 1980, both Jack Kennedy and Robert Kennedy had been cruelly slain by the bullets of single assassins, the dream of a Robert Kennedy Presidency – a dream Corbin had desired and fought for, for so many years – never had the chance to be realised, and Corbin had been out of politics for some years. Now was Ted Kennedy’s opportunity. Corbin was no Carter fan, but even if he had have been, his loyalty remained to the Kennedys, and so he worked behind the scenes to replace Carter with Kennedy. When that attempt failed, and angry at the Carter campaign’s negative treatment of Kennedy (ironically), Corbin began passing intelligence – according to a 1990 article in The Milwaukee Sentinel – on the Democrats to Reagan’s campaign manager William Casey; the man that Jim Baker had claimed passed him the Carter debate preparation papers.

He’d been a conman in the 1940s running an advertising scam, he’d helped to win West Virginia for JFK in the 1960 Primary, he’d been handed a high office at the DNC, the FBI had investigated him for ‘unAmerican activities’ for his days in the Community Party which Robert Kennedy worked to suppress, he’d done business with McCarthy, LBJ had personally ensured he was fired from the DNC, and he’d perhaps been responsible for the political scandal of 1980, aiding the election of a Republican. When he died in 1990, he was on the payroll of Merchandise Mart in Chicago; a business purchased by Joseph Kennedy in the 1940s.

The underhanded and devious brilliance of Paul Corbin’s political activities were driven by one obsession: The Kennedys. And they certainly benefited from his tactics. It’s unclear when this became such an obsession for him, when the Kennedys became Corbin’s first love, a love that he would dedicate his life to progressing, but it’s clear that by 1980 Corbin was woven so deeply into the Kennedy fabric, he was willing to create the scandal of the 1980s, to embarrass Carter, to propel Reagan to a landslide, and to leave his own unmistakable imprint on US history.


God’s tapestry & the problem of foresight.

September 2, 2014

There was a moment during a debate between Dr William Lane Craig & Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens points out that to believe in the Christian narrative, one would have to believe that for 200,000 years of human existence, through the awful conditions that our fragile species barely survived within, through the disease and violence, through it all, heaven didn’t particularly care. 198,000 years later, heaven decided it was now time to intervene, by having a 1st century Palestinian Jew tortured to death somewhere in the Middle East. Laurence Krauss used a similar argument in his debate with Dr Craig also.

Craig countered and insisted that it wasn’t the timing that was important, but population, in that only 2% of the overall population of mankind existed prior to Christ and that Christ appeared to have arrived at a time prior to a population boom. Dr Craig referred to this as God choosing “an opportune moment” to send Jesus, right before massive population growth. Leaving aside God’s lack of concern for the poor 2%, and the fact that an all-powerful God could have created a population boom whenever He pleased rendering the “opportune moment” suggestion meaningless, I think it important to note the consequences of that “opportune moment” chosen to intervene, and its implications for the premise of the Christian God.

For, not only would you need to believe that for 198,000 years heaven peered on with indifference, but you’d also have to believe that either God did not foresee the future consequences of choosing that moment and that specific region to send Christ to ‘save’ mankind and the suffering that it would entail, or He did foresee it, and was absolutely fine with it; the problem of foresight.

All religious narratives suffer a form of contradiction every so often, whether that be contradiction within texts themselves, or the text contradicting the premise of the God on offer. In this case – the problem of foresight – it is the latter that we’re focusing on, because the premise of an all-knowing God implies eternal foresight, whilst the historical consequences of what Christian’s believe to be God’s actions, imply a God unaware of how this plan was going to turn out, or simply an uncaring God (contradicting the concept of an all-loving God).

For Christianity, time – God’s creation – is laid out in front of Him like a tapestry that He wove. Before the events of Genesis 1, He already knew, because He created as a timeless absolute, the consequences of the actions of all mankind at all times, from the hugely consequential decision to convert the Roman Empire to the faith, right through to an individual’s private sex life in the 21st Century. He sees it all and crucially, He can intervene whenever He chooses. And yet it seems unfathomable that such a power would be so oblivious – or simply uncaring – to the consequences of the manner in which His followers would convey the Christian message over the centuries. Indeed, He necessarily knew the consequences, and again sat back with indifference for the next 2000 years.

Whilst not wishing to document every instance of Christian-led persecution over the past 2000 years, it is perhaps worth noting a few, in order to highlight the contradiction and the problem of foresight.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that the brutality by which Christian Emperors of Rome – like Constantius and his persecution of Pagans – would aid the growth and power of Christian dogma into a disastrous dark age and the suppression of all things ‘heretical’ – including extensive book burning – for at least the next thousand years. He could have encouraged free inquiry in medicine, democratic accountability in political affairs, astronomy, human liberty, and all over forms of inquiry that simultaneously shrink the gaps by which God traditionally resides, whilst elevating the suffering of mankind. With few exceptions, the opposite occurred. Along with the centuries-long justification of tyrannical Christian power under the guise of “divine right”, and knowing as He would have if He were all-knowing, among other edicts of suppression, that the Emperor Jovian would order the burning of the library at Antioch, through to the child abuse scandal of the modern day Catholic Church.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that a great deal of Europe’s human beings – like Thomas Moore – and their families would suffer the indignity of religious-inspired state murder; the unimaginable physical and psychological pain that comes with confinement and executed for such nuanced differences as whether or not the King or the Pope had supreme control of the Church. His own devout followers, who offered nothing but devotion and love, He knew would be subject to the most cruel punishments for simple disagreements. An all-knowing God would necessarily have seen this in great detail, long before the “In the beginning…” of Genesis 1.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God before events described in Genesis 1, knew the tragedy that would beset Native tribes in the Americas when the sincerely believed Christian message was forcefully imposed. Indeed, He knew far greater the reason for that pain and tragedy than the Friar’s involved, yet started the ball rolling down that inevitable path by sending Christ, and very mixed messages in the Holy Book that followed. Ken Burns documentary ‘The West’ notes one 18th Century Friar during the missionary period firmly believing his life’s work must be to save Natives from damnation, confused as to its clear failure, saying:

“They live well free, but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken and die.”

- The Friar could not understand how a Godly message of what he considered to be saving grace, was having such an adverse affect on the Native population. God however, does not get the luxury of such an excuse.

It must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that Jerusalem would be a Holy centre for three major faiths, and consequently, the centre of such a violent dispute. He set humanity up for that inevitable conflict. The Gods of Islam and Judaism don’t escape this criticism either.

And most notably, it must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that 1700+ years later, a movement to prevent further Christian state brutality, and to free human ingenuity and autonomy required the disestablishing of Christian authority over the public realm.

The birth of Jesus was a moment that would change the course of history for humanity… though not for God, who knew how it all would pan out anyway. It is on that second point that it is not viable to suggest He provided that divine message, and that from that moment on, it was up to humanity to live according to it. It is not viable, because with the tapestry of time laid out in front of Him, He could see the minute-by-minute detail of exactly how His message would be used, and He chose to go with that course anyway; in fact, He created that course and intrinsically stitched humanity to it. Indeed, to suggest God is all-knowing, is to suggest humanity has no choice but to follow the path God is already aware that he/she will follow. The only possible way to deflect from that path, is to be more powerful than God, which again, contradicts the premise of the all-powerful Christian God.

And so we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.


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