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.


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.


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.


The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

August 29, 2014

All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. It is simply untrue that a moral
Statement magically transforms from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ by preceding it with a simple “my God says….”. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity – the very base upon which a ‘subjective’ moral conclusion becomes ‘objective’ – one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. 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, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.


Spirituality does not require religion.

August 26, 2014

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Back in 2010, the culture editor of Jesuit magazine ‘America’, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin wrote a book titled ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything‘, in it, he criticises those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I thought I’d offer my criticisms of several points Martin raises.

I felt it worth pointing out first – as a reference – exactly what spirituality means to me. For me, spirituality is serious inner engagement with what it means to be human. Whether we as individuals choose to involve religion or not in our personal journey, we are all spiritual, because we are all flawed and we do not like flaws. As a complex and diverse species blessed with curiosity and a burning desire for definitive answers – this, I believe is the reason for the development of religion – we cannot deal too well with flaws. We want definitive answers now. Prior to the scientific method of inquiry, we invented wonderful tales and myths to explain the seemingly inexplicable – and often terrifying – in a simple way, because we need answers, even when answers seem so complex and far away. It is how we explained volcanoes and earthquakes, rainbows and vast oceans. Not only that, but we evolved as a group species, across habitats, with a yearning for individual freedom, creating diverse social bonds. We are intrigued by beauty, we cry at the pain of others, we try to grasp fleeting happiness and make it last, we have different triggers that anger us, and we have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time, and that’s a frightening idea. We are simply very confused apes. Spirituality is a way we deal with that confusion. Evolved human intelligence has produced brilliant, yet tangled minds that brought great development aiding the survival of the species, but at the cost of inner emotional turmoil that affects us all. Spirituality is simply an individual shaped by the majesty and flaws of human evolution, and by their own experiences and memories, attempting to reconcile those confusions and those contradictions, a sort of unraveling of tangled wires in our minds, by our own minds. If religion helps an individual with that, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Martin says:

“Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”

– For Catholics to speak of their faith as humble, despite having their own city state and a massive palace, takes quite the imagination. And so I would argue the opposite to that which James Martin asserts. Religion does not check a tendency to believe oneself to be the centre of the universe. Quite the opposite, religion teaches that the chosen few are the centre of the universe. We inhabit an infinitesimally small section of time, in a universe so massive in both time and space that it requires great arrogance to believe a small section of a global population on a tiny planet are the ones blessed by a universal creator. We do not know how a universe springs into being. It is religion that teaches us that a personal God did it. A God that created everything specifically for humans, and cares who you have sex with. Indeed, not only are the chosen few the centre of the universe, not only was all of time waiting for over 13 billion years for them to spring up for a few seconds, but the rules of the chosen few must be placed upon those who do not adhere to its beliefs. The shackles of religious privilege in a secular country like the US can be quite clearly observed when we note how long it is taking to afford equal rights to same-sex couples, and the absurdity by which Christian bosses at Hobby Lobby believe the private lives of their employees, are to be linked to God against their will. We see ISIS insisting that their brand of Islam must engulf an entire region, whether the people of that region accept it or not. Martin’s implication that spirituality requires religion, is not humility, nor is it checking a tendency to believe oneself the centre of the universe. It is the exact opposite.

“More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.”

– This strikes me as a particularly bizarre passage. The implication is that without a religious base for spiritual development, there can be no sense of humility (again, ironic given the history of the Catholic church), self-critique, or sense of responsibility, yet the goal is self improvement; which requires self-crique, and a sense of humility and responsibility. Critique, humility, and a sense of responsibility are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the religious community, which is why Eastern traditions – like Taoism – do not invoke an all powerful personal God for spiritual guidance. Gautama Buddha rejected the notion of a creator and personal God, and by Martin’s standards, Buddhists are therefore lacking a key ingredient to spiritual development. Critique, humility and a sense of communal responsibility are evolved traits from a communal and individual species, that informs our decision making, our daily interactions, and our progress as individuals and as a species. Without the development of human intelligence from Homo Habilis, through to Homo Sapiens, there would be no religion usurping the legacy of our wonderful ancestry. Religion owes its existence to evolved developments in human intelligence, not the other way around.

“Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.”

– This is true. But it’s not limited to gathering for religious purposes. Spiritual people do not require a belief in God to gather and to share spiritual experiences and stories. Church or Mosque or Synagogue are places that may facilitate that communal sense in-built to human beings, but we’ve been gathering, telling stories, painting art works, playing music, listening to each other and progressing long before the first Church sprang up. Secular atheists do not require the invoking of God in order to gather, to share stories, and to ‘work with others to fulfill the dreams of the community’. We don’t believe in a God, so it wouldn’t aid our spiritual journey to do so.

As an atheist, my spiritual journey is an attempt to understand myself on a deeper level, to progress, to love, to be a better person, to experience beauty, to always question my motives and thoughts, to establish my place within the wider community, and to reconcile conflicts in my life and in my mind. It does not require a belief in God.

It appears to me that the Reverend James Martin has attempted to claim spirituality and the natural human ability for self critique and development, for religion. As religious folk attempt to do with morality, it seems the religious are now taking credit for the evolution of human intelligence. Quite contrary to Martin’s attempts, Christianity simply attempted to anchor the moral musings, as well as spiritual developments of a single time and place – 1st Century Palestine – for the rest of forever. Religion therefore jumped on a moral and spiritual train already speeding along the tracks, whilst implying that they have been driving the train all along.


Creationists: Give equal airtime to P’an Ku.

May 15, 2014

P'an Ku - Creator of the universe, according to ancient Chinese mythology.

P’an Ku – Creator of the universe, according to ancient Chinese mythology.


Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ has been given a wonderful new life with Neil deGrasse Tyson resurrecting the popular series this year. But not everyone agrees. As we’re all aware by now, creationists across the US are incensed that ‘Cosmos’ only relies on an abundance of scientific data, rather than Bronze aged myths.

Whilst the complaint appears to be that ‘Cosmos’ doesn’t allow for the possibility of ‘creation science’, they specifically seem to mean Christian notions of young earth creation. As if scientific data, and the Book of Genesis, offer equally as viable explanations. But it seems to me that Christian creationists are guilty of the same charge they throw at ‘Cosmos’. Creationists should also be asking: Why aren’t Christian creationists willing to offer equal air time, and a place on the school science curriculum for the ancient Chinese creator of everything; P’an Ku.

China is rich with beautifully crafted mythology, framing the cultural heritage of one of the oldest civilisations on the planet. In the third century, the Chinese author Xú Zhěng wrote of the creation of the heavens, the earth, and everything on it from a Taoist perspective (A Buddhist perspective of the myth differs slightly). The creator is P’an Ku. As with most creation myths, a great void preceded P’an Ku, until the chaos of that void pulled together to form an egg. The egg lasted for 18,000 years. Inside the egg existed the elements of the universe, working to balance the concepts of Yin and Yang, until they perfectly aligned. Once aligned, the egg began to open and P’an Ku emerged. P’an Ku worked tirelessly with the perfect principles of Yin and Yang to create opposites; wet and dry, day and night, male and female.

The top part of the shell that cracked open as P’an Ku escaped, became the sky. The bottom part of the shell became the earth. Another 18,000 years passed as P’an Ku pushed up the sky, and pushed down the earth, as they grew larger and larger each day. Each day, P’an Ku grew six feet taller than the day before. P’an Ku parted the heavens and the earth (a claim that Muslims – like Zakir Naik – like to believe comes directly from the Qur’an and is evidence of their holy book mentioning the big bang; in reality, it’s a concept that preceded the Qur’an, existing in a plethora of creation myths).

Once the sky and the earth had been created, P’an Ku died. His body fell apart, and collapsed down to the earth. His final breaths became the wind that would forever circle the planet. His roaring voice became thunder. His teeth and bone marrow became metals. His blood became the waters in the rivers; the rivers controlled the earth before humanity. One of his eyes became the sun, and the other the moon. His head became the mountains. This idea of the dead body of the creator becoming a part of his creation, is reflected in the Norse creation myth of Ymir, whose flesh becomes the earth, and his blood becomes the rivers and seas. One must also note the similarity with the body of Jesus becoming the bread, and his blood becoming the wine served at the Eucharist. Unlike the God of Christianity, P’an Ku didn’t create humans, that was left to the Goddess Nüwa; the creator of humanity.

Nüwa was lonely on the earth by herself, so she started to create sheep, and horses among other creatures, to keep her company. After a while, she hand crafted humans out of clay. This process became tiresome, and so Nüwa dunked a vine in clay, and swung it around, with each droplet becoming a human. At times, she continued to hand craft humans out of clay, and those chosen few became the nobility.

And that is story of P’an Ku, and the creation of everything.

Humanity is a wonderfully creative and curious species. The Chinese merged those two together, to form the story of P’an Ku. Creation myths are beautifully creative, and expertly crafted works of art. They exist as an example of humanity’s ceaseless quest for understanding and explanation, in the primitive age of our species. But they are not testable explanations or predictions that can be applied reliably, and so they are not science. This is as true for the myth of P’an Ku as it is for the Biblical creation myth. If creationists wish to see equal airtime given to Christian creation myths as to science, or to be taught as science in schools, there is no reason the curriculum – or ‘Cosmos’ – shouldn’t also include every other possible creation myth – including P’an Ku – throughout history. All the more so, in a secular country.


Secularism VS Islam – Terry Sanderson VS Abdullah al Andalusi

May 7, 2014

I recently watched this debate between Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, and Abdullah al Andalusi of the Muslim Debate Initiative:

Around the 9:20 mark, Abdullah al Andalusi argues that same-sex marriage, is in fact anti-secular, in that it imposes humanist values on society. I will use this brief article, to point out the flaw in his logic:

“Recently there was a discussion about gay marriages and they said that it should be allowed. That gay marriages should be allowed, and so on. But that’s actually not the state being neutral to the issue of how humans should organise themselves. The state is now saying that marriage now means something, that we’re going to give it a different value or a different meaning to it a and now we’re going to implement this as law. This issue of same gender marriage is an example of the state getting involved in the issues of society. And now that they try to teach in school… to children [he says this in a tone that suggests disgust]… that gay marriage is an acceptable life path, that is also getting involved in the values.”

– Contrary to al Andalusi’s assertion, legalising same sex marriage, and teaching kids that no single sexuality is privileged, is absolutely the state remaining neutral on matters of religious belief, by not permitting religious belief to interfere with civil and individual rights. This is not to claim that the state remains neutral on how a society should organise itself, simply that my liberty should not be at the mercy of your religious beliefs. It is the opposite of religious privilege. It is quite simple; secularism provides equal protection for all, establishing a line of equality, whereby no one individual belief permitted the privilege of controlling the life of another.

In the case of same sex marriage, it seems to me that there are two distinct options:

Firstly, the state concedes to the demands of a religious sect, permits a right – in this case marriage – to one specific group, and erects barriers to that same liberty for others. It is therefore a right the privileged few enjoy for themselves, whilst denying it for others. This is the opposite of secular, and completely unjustifiable, simply because the followers of a single religion have permitted themselves the privileged right to decide upon who gets the the same rights as they themselves enjoy. To injure the liberty of others, you must provide a reason that isn’t simply based on your belief. For example, I give up my liberty to steal from you, because I don’t want you to steal from me, and so we enshrine this mutual pact into law. To restrain the right to marry, for two loving and consenting adults who are not in anyway harming your liberty, whilst you yourself enjoy the right you seek to restrict for others, would be the equivalent of me presuming the privilege of banning you from your right to disagree with me, whilst I myself enjoy the liberty to disagree with you. This is how supremacist systems work; it is how racial supremacist systems operated, and it is how religious supremacist systems operate. It is by definition, oppression.

The second option is the opposite; if I enjoy a specific right – in this case, as a heterosexual man (and so, already privileged through much of history, for no justifiable reason) – I have no inherent right to prevent your equal enjoyment of the same right. To do so, would be to presume I am deserving of a privilege that a homosexual person isn’t. To presume this, requires ideology, or in this case, religion. For the state to stay neutral, it must not grant me the privilege that I seek to enjoy a liberty whilst denying it others according to my religious beliefs. This is equally true for you, and does not impose itself upon your liberty. You – as a religious individual opposed to same sex marriage – still have the exact same rights you’ve always had, and are not forced to live according to anyone else’s dictates. Afford others the same. The state breaking down the barrier to sexuality equality, is not the same as the state oppressing a single right of yours. You lose nothing that you could justify keeping, when the state opens the cage door and frees those that your religion has locked inside for far too long. To put it simply, one of these options is to chain the right to life, to your individual belief. The other, is to free people from the chains of your individual belief. The latter, is how the state remains neutral, not the former.

On the issue of education; no one is claiming that the state is not ‘getting involved in the values’ of society. The value is simple; no single religious belief is permitted a privileged state position, including the privilege to institutionalise through state education, the dehumanising of human beings (including children in that room) that they dislike, simply because according to ancient myth (and not reality), God destroyed Sodom. You are fully entitled to that belief, you just aren’t entitled to make life hell for the group you personally dislike. To highlight this concept another way; in a classrom, Child A is not allowed to strike Child B, despite Child A believing he has an inherent right to strike Child B but that Child B has no right to strike him back. Child A believes the teacher should permit him the right to strike Child B, but that he himself should be protected from Child B invading his own liberty not to be struck. The restriction of Child A’s demands for privilege, does not qualify as the teacher not being neutral. It is the opposite.

I’m sure we’d both agree that the state shouldn’t be educating children to believe that being Muslim according to one’s free conscience is not an acceptable lifestyle path, if someone in the country has a God that tells them Muslims are evil. This would be the state privileging other beliefs, and oppressing Muslims. Or that having blue eyes is not an acceptable lifestyle path, because someone in the country has a God that tells them people with blue eyes are evil. This would be the state privileging all other eye colours, and oppressing those with blue eyes. Similarly, ensuring that children are not taught that heterosexuality is inherently ‘right’, whilst homosexuality inherently ‘wrong’, is the very essence of a secular education. In the same way that the state doesn’t teach that being white is inherently ‘right’, and any other ethnicity inherently ‘wrong’. To do so would be to provide state privilege based solely on the personal belief of those seeking the privilege.

The state remains neutral, by its line of equality, ensuring no child is inherently deserving of discrimination simply on account of sexuality, ethnicity, gender, or belief, where it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of others, and so allowing the individual talents of that child to be free from religious oppression. It is the protection of all, from all. This is secularism.

This is where it seems – like many Theists – Abdullah al Andalusi does not understand secularism.