Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.

30May/122

“But We Like the Box!”

I've been told on more than one recent occasion that I "think outside the box." I appreciate that left-handed compliment. It's nice to know people pay attention to what I say or write or think. That's the whole point of being a blogger, right? Being different. But it also strikes me that minority thoughts will always be unpopular thoughts. That's the math of it. It's no fun being unpopular. I don't enjoy it. Nobody enjoys it. This begs the question of why I don't just go with the flow, agree with everybody else and make life more pleasant for myself.

Part of it must be simple compulsion. When I play armchair psychologist on myself, I sense I must crave attention; apparently any attention, no matter how negative, will do. I'm unable to find empirical evidence to disprove this theory, though it certainly feels incorrect from inside my head. It's probably the truth, though. I have to acknowledge that possibility.

Having said that, I've been this way for decades. I admire those who question things no one else will, yank them out into the open so they can be subjected to rational thought. Take Sam Kinison's standup routines about Jesus: "Maybe I wouldn't have to [die] if somebody'd get me a ladder and a pair of pliers!" I was shocked to my core when I first heard that joke. It offended me, even after I'd said goodbye to most of my childhood beliefs, because it was a strange new way of thinking. I may find new thoughts uncomfortable, but I fear them far less than our reluctance to entertain them. Humanity's problems will not be solved by reapplying the old ones.

When I watch someone like Christopher Hitchens demolishing religious arguments, driving them twelve feet underground with one irresistible rhetorical punch, it's hard not to feel sorry for folks who accept those ideas as literal truth. (Example: “How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.”) I respect people's feelings. I may not always give as much evidence of that as I should, but I do. I try to be fair to all sides, at least until it becomes obvious my opponents' beliefs are based on nothing that is any more concrete than the wish that they might be true. But y'know, if most people are wrong about something, we need to be told that. We really, truly do. When most Americans were wrong about slavery, John Brown needed to change their minds, even if his words hurt people's feelings. (Example: "'Caution,' sir! I am eternally tired of hearing that word 'caution.' It is nothing but the word of cowardice.") I'll go you one better: Jesus was never afraid to contradict people's long-held beliefs--about religion, ethnicity, morality, or politics. (Example: “Do not think I came to put peace upon the earth; I came to put, not peace, but a sword.”--Matthew 10:34) He trusted the world to catch up with him. Of course, that approach got him killed, so I'm not as ambitious. We should settle our differences with less animosity. Also, I vote no on blogger crucifixions.

I wasn't very old before I realized most people, especially most avowed Christians, were wrong to oppose equal civil rights for gay Americans. I'm pleased to see most Americans have come around to my way of thinking. If you haven't, I hope you will. You may never do that, but then again, some people still regret the vote being granted to women or black people. Some otherwise likable people think the purpose of our universe is to favor them over anyone who is in any way unlike them. That's dumb, even evil, on the face of it, and this time I don't mind being the one who says so.

Right now most Americans are wrong about religion. I don't mean they're wrong to have it, I mean they're wrong about several particular beliefs. I wouldn't make a big deal of it, except I've noticed there are Christian denominations who have no problem demanding their will be done in American government. They want images of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, Genesis mythology in public science classes, gay marriage banned, and nonbelievers excluded from public office. They scream against Sharia without realizing they want an equally outdated Judaic flavor of it. They want these things so badly that they never even question whether they're desirable outcomes. That's where I and others like me come in. We won't be popular, but we know some things must be said and, whatever the cost, we're willing to say them.

Example: We do not know God's morality. The putative Law of Moses is entangled with so much insanity and nonsense that it's all but impossible God had anything to do with it. It upholds a racist, misogynist, homophobic, pro-slavery, anti-liberty view of the world that can only have come from tribal chieftains. On those rare occasions when Bible morality does make sense, it shares that philosophy with every ethical code before and since. When it makes no sense at all, which is often, innocent people die. God neither wrote nor dictated the Bible. If your only justification for your moral belief is a Bible verse, that belief is no longer compelling.

By the way, I suspect the fact that the Bible is homophobic isn't the real reason fundamentalists are. I think they quote the Bible, rather, to support a feeling they'd have anyway, which is that gay people are oogy. That reason is also no longer compelling. I find Rush Limbaugh disgusting, but that shouldn't keep him from getting married as many times as he likes. His bed is none of my beeswax.

We don't know God's morality. Really ponder that. Let it roll around in your head. We don't really know what God considers good or evil. If the Bible were true, then it would also, by necessity, be true that God prefers Jews to Gentiles, men to women, grateful slaves to abolitionists, genocide to peaceful cohabitation, carnal sacrifice to spiritual meditation, prayer to medicine, inexplicable two-thousand-year salvation plans to miraculous repairs. All of that is clear in the book we've been taught to extol. If God did authorize any of this so-called morality, it says nothing in His favor. So when I see a pleasant Bible verse quoted on a friend's Facebook update, I smile from old habit...but I also can't help thinking perversely that it'd be more interesting if I quoted any of the thousand Bible verses any thinking American would find appalling.

Here are verses you're unlikely to see quoted on Facebook:

"'Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.'"--Genesis 22:2

"Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."--Psalm 137:9

“So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go."--Judges 19:25

"Samaria shall become desolate; for she hath rebelled against her God: they shall fall by the sword: their infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up."--Hosea 13:16

"Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel."--1 Peter 2:18

"I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."--1 Timothy 2:12

Uplifting, right? That's what comes from making ethical decisions based on a series of books written by people who knew less about the world than most present-day people do. I know I'll never be everyone's favorite guy for saying it, but it needs to be said anyway. Anyone else willing to jump up and take the mic?

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22May/122

This Guy Is Kinda My Hero Right Now

Pastor Tim Brown, the "Reluctant Xtian," has written a sequel to his excellent blog post linked below. Here, then, are "5 Phrases I Think Christians Should Say More Often."

Pastor Tim, I accept your challenge. Any Christian friends care to suggest a book for me to read?

One proviso: if I don't agree with your book, even if it's a book you really, really love, I get to say so and explain why without any hurt feelings on either side. And if you're asking me to suggest a book to you, how 'bout my own? (Only 99 cents! What a deal!) Or, failing that, I most heartily recommend Why Christianity Must Change or Die by Bishop John Shelby Spong, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens (a snide but persuasive work Pastor Tim also admires), The Evolution of God by Robert Wright, or The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins.

What say you, friends?

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22May/122

Yay, Birth Control!

Yesterday a group of 43 Catholic organizations across the country sued the Obama administration to keep from having to include birth control among their insurance provisions. I'm not oblivious to the deep offense they feel at being "encouraged" to allow parishioners to violate papal commandments, and on their insurance companies' collective dime. But let's remember a few facts.

1. The Bible never says anything about birth control. Never. Not one thing.

2. It does command Adam and Eve to fill and subdue the Earth, but hey, mission accomplished. By any rational consideration, the human population on Earth is already excessive, as is our impact on the environment.

3. The Adam and Eve story is nonsense anyway. It's a myth. Even the Vatican acknowledges that.

4. The Pope is not, in fact, infallible when he speaks under any circumstances. Even Catholics know that, which is why...

5. Even by the most stringent criteria, two-thirds of Catholic women are on birth control.

How much do Baptists really care about keeping Catholic women off the pill? I think it's readily apparent that Republicans, most of them Protestant, are goading Catholics to object to this tiny aspect of health care reform in order to keep us from remembering that health care reform is terrific. Remember Sicko? Remember how we were all begging for health care reform a few years ago? Anyone out there nostalgic for the good old days of preexisting conditions? You, sir? Nobody?

The GOP knows what most voters do not: that when Obamacare kicks in for real in 2014, most people are going to love it. It solves so many problems and creates so few new ones. Of course the Affordable Care Act is in jeopardy in the sharply divided Supreme Court, but even then some new policy will survive. And the louder Fox News yells about it, the clearer it becomes that there will be much rejoicing in 2014. It's the kind of sweeping improvement to all our lives that could make things really difficult for Republicans in elections for years, especially after the lingering embarrassment of the Bush-Cheney era. In fact it exemplifies the positive change Obama promised in 2008, and which even many Democrats claim he's failed to deliver. But he did, despite years of monolithic opposition, and your parents (or you) may live longer because of it...and without being forced to declare bankruptcy.

Also, prohibiting birth control is stupid. I know it's totally gauche to call somebody's heartfelt religious beliefs a name, but this sincere belief is stupid. If you have that belief, and you're a friend, I'm not calling you stupid. I'm calling the Pope stupid, on this point if no other. Don't be stupid like his stupid belief. If you have that belief and you're a reader but not a friend, accept what I'm saying as knowledge almost everyone possesses but is too polite to tell you. Birth control prevents overpopulation, and God is not in favor of overpopulation. Birth control regulates menstrual cycles, and God doesn't want you to have weird menstrual cycles. Birth control allows people to enjoy marital sex without having to raise a new baby every year. One baby is delightful. Two babies is fun. A dozen babies is gross.

Granted, most religions are opposed to premarital sex, but most religious people actually aren't. That's why 80 percent of young evangelicals have premarital sex. Heck, even Brigham Young students have premarital sex. If you're a Protestant or Catholic Christian reading this and trying to work up a case of high moral dudgeon, take a deep breath and remember: you had premarital sex. Did it kill you? It did not. Did God curse your family unto the sons of your sons? He did not.

We don't believe premarital sex is bad anymore. I know we have to pretend we do when we're talking to other people in our churches, but we don't believe that...because it isn't...if you're careful. And birth control is how people who have premarital sex go about being careful. And smart. Premarital sex is how people shop for a sex partner they can stand having sex with for decades, aka a spouse. That's not immoral. It's just basic common sense.

Democrats like to call birth control "family planning," as if the whole point was to have kids. That's disingenuous. The point is to not have kids until you want and are ready to have kids. Call it "life planning" instead, fellow thinkers. And Catholic pundits, let this one go. You just sound stupid when you talk about it.

It's not nice to call any religious belief stupid. I know that. So why am I doing it? Because it's even more offensive to cost women their health or life plans just to score empty political points against a president you dislike. Also, this particular papal belief is incredibly stupid, which is why almost nobody has it.

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16May/122

My New e-Book: Rereading the Bible!

Gentle Reader, I'm thrilled to announce the release of a new e-book. Here's the trailer:

Rereading the Bible includes updated material from this site, plus a bonus chapter on evolution vs. intelligent design and a full section on the book of Revelation. Buy it now on Smashwords, where it's only 99 cents for over 50,000 words! That's cheaper than a soda at McDonald's!

Rereading the Bible on Smashwords

Rereading the Bible is also available on Amazon for Kindle; but due to Amazon's "minimum pricing policy," the cost is $2.99 there.

Rereading the Bible on Amazon

Either way, I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, please review it on both sites. Thanks for reading, and tell a friend!

Rereading the Bible is brought to you by

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29Mar/124

Ask an Agnostic!

Dear Ask an Agnostic,

I love my boyfriend, and he tells me everyday that he loves me. We've been an item for over five years now, but he always shies away from conversations about marriage or engagement. I want to be with him forever, so I can't help wondering why he hasn't proposed. We almost never fight, and when we do we make up quickly. Still, my left hand is aching for a ring! I admit I've gained some weight over the last two years, and I don't always see eye to eye with his friends. Could he be expressing dissatisfaction with me or our relationship by not proposing? And how long should I wait before I press him for an answer?

Sincerely,
Miss Antsy in Atlanta

Dear M.A.i.A.,

How the hell should I know?

Your pal,
An Agnostic

-----

When you live in the Midwest and announce openly that you're agnostic, it's kind of like coming out: you tell a few friends, see how they handle it, then tell your family, and finally, announce it to the world. Some will be so opposed to your agnosticism that they'll never feel comfortable talking to you again. (Yes, that happened to me, more than once.) Others will shrug. Then there are those folks who see you as their token agnostic friend. It's kind of like being the only black kid in civics class. ("So Harold, what do African-Americans think about immigration reform?") In college, Bryan was my "gay friend." He was the only gay person I knew well at the time, so he suddenly represented and spoke for 10-20% of the population. Was that logical? No, but it's how things were in early 1990s small-town Oklahoma. We didn't have a better option.

So when any news story related in any way to atheism (or, for that matter, fundamentalism) arises, it's understandable that my friends and Facebook acquaintances inquire how I feel about the story. I've asked for that. I've written extensively about doctrinal matters here and elsewhere, and I am, as noted above, the "agnostic friend." So I'd like to use this hour of unexpected free time to catch up on a few of those stories.

The thing is, there's a reason why you've never seen an "Ask an Agnostic!" column in any newspaper--the answer to every question would be "I don't know." In the absence of hard data, I couldn't say whether there's a God or not. I simply have no idea. You don't, either, so you picked the option that sounded best to you. I consider myself a Christian from an ethical standpoint, but it's obvious to me that the Bible contains no supernatural knowledge of God. (Compare this story, coincidentally posted on CNN.com earlier today.)

I disbelieve in Yahweh, the Hebrew tribal war deity. Period. Having said that, I do not identify as an atheist, and I'm not just saying that to worm out of criticism. I'm sticking with what I can prove. I understand the compulsion to explain nature in purely naturalistic terms, but there's no more proof of the nonexistence of a First Cause than there is of Its existence. I consider the unqualified statement "there is no God" an expression of faith, and I reject the notion that acceptance without evidence is an automatic virtue, for atheists or theists. Faith is not always good. We have to take certain things on faith to get through the day, sure, but no matter what your authority figures may tell you, the presence or absence of God isn't one of those things. Life goes on even if you admit you're unsure.

So: the news stories. First, this one, in which evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene, a classic) recommends making fun of theistic beliefs and believers. Now, I've read Dawkins extensively, and I've written about him before. The truth is, I prefer a "catch more flies with honey" approach to that of Dr. "Darwin's Rottweiler" Dawkins. But given the fact that he receives regular death threats from so-called Christians, I can understand why he might be a bit peevish about excessive religiosity after all these years.

(For an amusing insight into mail call at the Dawkins house, check out the following NSFW video:

So yeah, he's tired of meeting misspelled, vitriolic abuse with nonstop pleasantry. Wouldn't you be?)

I try very hard not to make fun of true believers, though I admit I've had a less than perfect record in that attempt. All I ask is that religious folks meet me halfway. See, I understand that as a member of civilized society, I have a responsibility to treat other people with kindness and compassion. I know life is rough, and I shouldn't begrudge anyone the comforts he or she needs to survive from day to day without going postal. On the other hand, we all have a responsibility as adults to make sure our beliefs arrive at some sort of logical sense. It's fun to believe in Santa Claus, sure--but at a certain point, society expects you to grow up, and it won't consider you a grown-up until you come to grips with the fact that an obese, anachronistically-outfitted elf cannot possibly squeeze down and up every chimney in the world in a single night. You can't sit around on Christmas Eve waiting for jolly Saint Nick to bring presents for your kids. There's no excuse for that. Eventually, a reasonable worldview must trump whatever kiddie story makes you the happiest. It sucks, Gentle Reader, but there it is.

For that reason, if you honestly believe one of the two creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis, by which I mean you accept wholesale a fable that claims we derive from a hippie nudist couple in a garden with magic fruit trees and an evil talking lizard, then you can't be surprised when people like Dawkins treat you as childish. You just can't. That's how growing up works. Cultural taboos notwithstanding, other grown-ups don't have to be perpetual sweethearts about every ridiculous thing you insist on believing. When Mormons believe their loony golden tablet story or don special underwear, guess what, we're allowed to make fun of them. Same goes for Scientologists and their space opera theology. Making fun of guys like Pat Robertson doesn't make you a bad person--or a bad Christian. By the same token, while I agree ad hominem attacks are beneath me, I see no reason to go out of my way to avoid mocking fundamentalist doctrines. It's okay for sane adults to roll their eyes at self-evident nonsense.

Finally, there's this story, which says four out of ten Americans now believe (or rather, tell Gallup they believe) the Genesis story all the way. That number has fallen over the last few years, which is good. It means people feel comfortable actually thinking about the things they say they believe, which is the adult thing to do.

The Gallup poll includes a middle-ground opinion that yes, evolution occurs, but its effects are driven by God in fulfillment of His will. In my view, that notion is utterly valid, and I defy any evolutionist to disprove it. See, I don't think it's unreasonable to look at our world and decide, "There's no way this came about by pure accident." I just ask people to please try not to use that as an excuse to absolve themselves from further rational thinking.

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18Nov/105

The Undiscovered Country

It surprises people when I point out the Bible changes its mind several times about the nature of death. The Bible was written from stories and ideas conceived over thousands of years, so it's inevitable that philosophy would evolve. In the Old Testament, heroes and villains alike go to Sheol, the Land of Forgetfulness. The dust of the body returns to the earth, and consciousness descends to a cold abyss of silent rest. The third chapter of Job offers a moving poetic description of the Jewish afterlife.

By the time Jesus came along, the Jewish view of death had been influenced by Greek and Roman ideas. The realm of Hades was described many different ways, but only once in the Bible is the word "Hades" associated with posthumous rewards or punishments, and that's in Jesus's parable about Lazarus. It seems odd to me that anyone ever took this parable literally. It postulates a burning hell in which all torment can be relieved with a single drop of water. Jesus was clearly making a metaphorical point about life, not what comes after.

Jesus was also speaking figuratively when he referred to Gehenna, aka the Valley of Hinnom. The valley is a real place just outside Jerusalem. As a Jehovah's Witness child, I was taught the valley was an ever-burning trash heap. This idea derived from a Jewish rabbi, David Kimhi, who wrote it in a commentary on Psalm 27:13 around the year 1200. Recent scholarship has found no evidence to back this up, but we do know Gehenna was the site of ritual child sacrifice by fire back in the bad old Ba'al worship days. In any case, there is no gate to hell in the Valley of Hinnom. Only gradually did Christian thought coalesce around the idea of two possible outcomes for the dead, one a place of eternal reward, the other a subterranean barbecue pit with devils wielding pitchforks. Why pitchforks? Why no Tasers or Muzak? Seems a bit medieval. Those demons need to get with the times.

For truly awful afterlife fun, check out the Muslim hells. They have several, including Zamhareer, the blizzard hell. Here in America, we call that "Wyoming."

My point is, no one knows what, if anything, happens to our consciousness after we die. The evidence of our eyes tells us we decompose. We can see (and smell) that. New Age types tell us our "energy" goes out into the world, but "energy" is a word with an actual scientific definition. It doesn't just mean some hypothetical magical aura. The energy in our body is heat and electricity, and it does, in fact, dissolve into the greater matrix of the planet. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to take any of our memories or thoughts with it.

In Mary Roach's excellent-as-usual book Stiff, she goes looking for reliable scientific evidence of an afterlife. The closest she finds is anecdotal evidence from so-called "Near-Death Experiences," or NDEs, on operating tables. A major study of these phenomena is still ongoing; but we've also found NDEs can be stimulated by psychedelic drugs like Dimethyltryptamine, which seem to affect some patients' pineal glands. We're not sure yet. Most open-heart surgical patients do not go through Near-Death Experiences, so it seems unlikely they represent some universal state of higher consciousness. It may even be that psychedelic experiences in shamanistic rituals have influenced cultural beliefs about the afterlife; in other words, "The medicine man got ripped on peyote last night and saw a long, white tunnel, so I guess that means we go through a tunnel when we die." Who's to say?

And that's just it: Who's to say? Death is like the mysterious jungle temple in many an adventure serial. "They say, sahib, it is filled with a thousand deadly traps. It is so dangerous that no man has ever returned!" Well, then, how do you know about the thousand deadly traps? Hamlet famously called death "that undiscover'd country from whose bourne [boundary] no traveller returns." "[T]the dread of something after death," he says, "puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of." In other words, we don't dare commit suicide, because what if the afterlife is worse?

I attended a funeral this weekend, and while I didn't know the deceased personally, I knew many of his family members. It was, of course, awful watching them huddle together in a brave attempt to cope with the intolerable. I listened to all the rituals, knowing from personal experience how little they help. Whether we believe our loved ones have "gone to a better place" or not, we want them here, in our place. I find little solace in the idea of being "called home" to a place I have no memory of seeing. What kind of "home" is that? I have no interest in "ruling at Jesus's right hand." Heck, I don't even want to rule a local theatre group. And I figure Jesus has got this one, y'know? Omnipotent powers, by definition, don't need any help, especially mine.

When I die, I expect to dissolve. Maybe I'll see one last hallucination before the lights go out forever, maybe not. I'm okay with that. What I'm not okay with is the shallow, ridiculous guesses about where I've gone that'll be foisted on my family in my absence. I've asked to be cremated, and my ashes can be spread wherever people see fit. Please don't talk about me as if I've just gone on vacation in Heaven. I'm gone. Celebrate my life.

If there is an afterlife, I'll help prove it. I plan to whisper my Hotmail password into my girlfriend's ear. Once she's gotten over the spooking of a lifetime, she can test it very easily. If it works, babe, hide the really incriminating stuff before you tell my mom I'm okay.

I understand why people wish there were more than this little life rounded with a sleep. This weekend I held the ashes of a man in the palm of my hand. It seemed so little to be the end of so damn much.

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28Sep/102

My Search for Meaning, Part 2

Before I get to the meat of this overlong soliloquy, I want to share a few juicily germane excerpts of The Daily Show's new Earth (The Book). It's a cover-to-cover NSFW giggle-fest. Enjoy:

"The manner by which life originated and developed on Earth was a matter of some debate for us. Scientists believed it required a long, slow process of natural genetic change called evolution. As evidence, they pointed to every bit of relevant data ever gathered. Many others rejected the notion that man descended from monkeys as distasteful, believing instead that life--and the cosmos itself--was created by one or more gods. As evidence, they pointed to themselves believing it."

"As the millennia flew by and man grew ever more sophisticated, the idea that the world was controlled by a cast of invisible emotionally unstable supernatural beings grew laughable. Instead, the world was actually controlled by one invisible emotionally unstable supernatural being, known hereafter as God."

"[M]ythology, the name we gave to every collection of crazy nonsense stories besides our own."

"Abraham's devotion earned the Jews the title of 'God's Chosen People,' and nothing bad ever happened to them again."

I don't care who y'are, folks, that's funny right there.

-----

Cue John Williams:

The should-be-embarrassing truth is, almost everything you need to know about my personal search for meaning is symbolized by that thirty-second snippet of that silly little space opera for children. From the time I was old enough to think I felt something indescribably transcendent when I looked at the stars, or when I heard a passage of beautiful music, or when I beheld inspired art on a canvas or a stage or movie screen--even while stuck on a crowded freeway. This could not have happened by accident, I thought, and because I thought that and had no saner option at the time, I accepted the crazy fundamentalist nonsense stories of Jehovah's Witnesses.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos changed all that. Once evidence for evolution was presented to me both clearly and confidently, my faith in Genesis toppled like a tower of late-night Dirty Jenga bricks. Suddenly it all made sense. God used "natural" selection as the engine of creation. Genesis was simply a metaphor for...well...something, TBD, with the real truth revealed by our latter-day sciences. Yet learning about the cosmos, even evolution, did nothing to diminish my humility and awe at the grandeur of the universe or its stunning improbability. On the contrary, my knowledge enhanced it.

When I walk outside at night and look at the sky, my eyes find the constellations I learned to recognize way back in my bright-eyed childhood. They haven't changed, of course, no matter how much I have, and the right-hand V in the great W of Cassiopeia still points toward M31, the galaxy in Andromeda, a whirling swarm of stars almost three million light-years away. In one pixel of light, how many planets am I seeing? How many civilizations, each as wondrously rich as our own? How many cultures have lived and died, trilling their radio swan songs into the darkness? The light from those stars has taken so long to reach our eyes that the whole galaxy could be long gone by now. It's literally impossible to say.

To think the "meaning" of existence is that God put all that diversity and beauty and majesty out there for us to enjoy from the vantage of our one little chunk of a planet humbles the very concept of "preposterous." We're so arrogant, it seems most of our religions claim God demands our admiration. Like He needs it. Like He cares. Like we matter. Honestly, humans, get over yourselves. We're less than the lint on a quark hugging a molecule itching the leg of a microbe on a flea compared to anything of scale in this universe, and we're fools to think anything else.

Of course, Christians believe that with God's omnipotence and omnipresence comes infinite caring. I guess that's one way to rationalize it. Hell, maybe it's even true. But when I look at the night sky, I don't see the thumbprint of a Creator trying to win our affection. I see an implacable ocean of energy, the merest whim of which could instantaneously erase us from history at any moment. But it's there, right? It's all there. And it's just barely possible that we're the only mortal intelligence out here who can fully appreciate it, so where does that leave us? What do we do with all that awe and reverence?

What, after all, is the point of religion? For some, it's to ease the crippling realization of our own mortality. Gentle Reader, I don't want to die any more than you do, but any mortal human who claims he or she knows what comes after death--even those who were whispered that information by an alleged deity or who read about it in a popular book--well, they're selling you something, even if that something is shallow peace of mind. I don't know what comes after death. It's probably nothing. But doesn't that just tell us that whatever life means, it had better mean that now?

If God doesn't need us to love Him, why are we here? If God doesn't answer prayers, or if prayer represents our arrogant attempt to persuade God to vary from His perfectly preordained plan, then why do we do it at all? If God's ways surpass our understanding of simple decency and fairness, what good is He?

I can't answer those questions for you. I can't even confidently answer them for myself. But if I accept the idea (by no means proven, by the way, no matter what Descartes contended) that I and you and everything we know exist in the face of truly overwhelming odds against that existence, then I have to contemplate the Grand Cosmic How of it all. I have to ask how it could possibly be that the catastrophically entropic particulation of Big Bang expansion energy somehow wound up looking like Mount Rainier or my uncle Leon. I understand some of what the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hawking, et al.) say about the universe's ability to create without consciousness, but it somehow rings hollow to my limited ears and mind.

Am I saying I "feel" Something Out There? Well, yeah, I guess I am. Of course, "feeling" is not science. It isn't proof. It isn't even trustworthy in the context of ordinary human interaction, let alone the great mysteries of the universe. It isn't the kind of thing I can lay on a table to persuade you, and it sure isn't the kind of thing I'd feel good about forcing down your throat in a Crusade. It gives you the freedom to believe whatever you want, 'cause I could be wrong. I probably am. If there is a God, even I'm not conceited enough to think I know anything about Him.

But I am conceited enough to say you don't, either.

You don't know who or what God likes or dislikes. You don't know what kind of sexual behavior He prefers. You don't know how many days or years it took us to get here. You don't know whether God inspired your favorite book. You don't possess absolute metrics for right or wrong, good or bad. You don't know when life begins. You don't know whether we remain conscious after death. I don't, either, so we should really quit acting like we do, don't you think?

So what the hell is the meaning of life? One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson, who said, "To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life." I guess if life does have a meaning--and I'm actually not a hundred percent sure it does--then I think Stevenson's on the right track. It ain't much, but it's believable. In a more poetic vein, "When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice." That's the Cherokee ideal.

I think much of what we need and seek in life is reflected in the faith we choose. I have no proof Amanda loves me and always will. I have no proof I'll always love her. But I need love, so I decide every day to believe something for which there is and can never be proof. The only difference between my belief in love and a fundamentalist's belief in a global flood is mine has a tiny little chance of being true. At the very least it's impossible to disprove, much like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or a deist God.

When I occasionally find myself in a church, I look around and wonder what people get out of it. They give up sleep and a Sunday morning at home in comfortable clothes to come sing dorky songs with grandiose lyrics, join in prayer for things they know they probably won't get, exchange pleasantries with people they'd generally ignore in other circumstances, and possibly share mediocre potluck food. Occasionally they open a popular book and read nonthreatening passages out loud, an activity they'd usually characterize as "über gay." Then they rush home to cuss at the TV through a violent, meaningless game of football while eating junk food and downing a few too many beers. So what's the point? Why do they go to all that trouble?

I think the point of church is, was, and probably always will be family. I think it's about letting people into your kin circle that haven't necessarily proven they deserve it yet. It's an act of faith and sharing. And sometimes, just every now and again, I miss it. Oh, not every church. Certainly not the Kingdom Hall or your average Wonder-bread Protestant church. But I can still clearly remember, even feel, the chill down my spine as the congregation rose for the Hallelujah Chorus. Rembrandt's "Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee" is as thrilling now as it was in 1863. The book of Job is one of the greatest things ever written by anyone anywhere, in any language. I believe it was a major influence on Hamlet, one of our other greatest things.

So here's what I want from a religion. I want it to make me a better person. That's job one. I want it to allow me to be completely honest, even to object when I believe it's mistaken. And I want it to make me happier. It may not sound like much, but if you think about it, perhaps you'll agree those are three giant, whoppingly difficult things to achieve. Christianity makes us happier till the day we can't believe it anymore, which for me came around age thirteen. Buddhism makes me a better person, but it still claims we reincarnate, which is really just a wild swinging guess designed to obfuscate the melancholy of death. Islam hasn't been honest about itself or much else since the early fourteenth century. Judaism's just Christianity for people stuck in the 500 BCs instead of the 100 ADs. Paganism promises outstanding sex but also requires chanting, which is pretty much impossible to take seriously. Still, the sex.

I need a religion that sees and expresses the poetry tucked inside all of life's prose. I need a religion that's sex-positive, which includes total acceptance of my gay friends. I need a religion that's humble and open-minded enough to accept new scientific discoveries as they're found, including the overwhelming evidence for evolution. I need a religion that's sane enough to admit it doesn't have a direct can-phone line to God. I need a religion with a sense of humor, ideally mine. I need a religion that doesn't take those weird verses in the Bible, or the Qur'an, or the Bhagavad Gita, seriously. (Gods with animal heads, even otherwise cool gods like Anubis or Ganesha, Lord of Beginnings, are right out. Scare tactics like the threat of hellfire and invisible demons in the sky are similarly obnoxious and juvenile.) I need a religion that inspires great art but doesn't suppress any unorthodox art, especially mine. I need a religion that values marriage and family but doesn't hold a grudge when things go south. I need a religion that thinks but seldom judges. I need a religion that notices when I'm absent, perhaps even misses me, but doesn't come snooping around my house to see what drove me away from the flock. Also, I need a religion that avoids the use of bizarre, outdated metaphors like "washed in the blood of the Lamb" or, for that matter, "the flock."

Basically, I guess what I'm asking for is a church that acts like Facebook, only live and in person. I don't know, Gentle Reader... Any suggestions?

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24Sep/105

My Search for Meaning, Part 1

If you haven't read this week's Volcano, feel free to catch up here.

My old friend and longtime reader Scott chided me for being "accommodationist" in my article "Rise of the New Atheism." Well, he's right. Unfortunately, what often happens in mass media writing is I have to treat both sides as if they're equally correct so nobody gets his or her feelings hurt. That way I seem more understanding and the Volcano doesn't risk losing a potential advertiser. It happens in the national news, too. Campbell Black once derided it as the trap of "false equivalence." But in the real world, not all ideas have equal merit, and it'd be kinda fun to say so.

So y'know what? I will. Not all ideas have equal merit. Creationism, for example, does not have equal merit with evolution as a scientific theory. It just doesn't. The latter has a mountain of evidence, the former has wishful thinking and a stubborn refusal to catch up with the cutting edge of the late nineteenth century. For a second example, not all talking points about moral issues have equal merit.

I know several of you were annoyed, perhaps even offended, by my take on abortion. I won't even try to talk you out of that. As I said before, if you think abortion is exactly the same as killing a baby, then you should be up in arms. But in the first trimester, I don't. That's my opinion. I'm responsible for drawing my own conclusions, same as you are, and that's the opinion I hold for now. I'm open to persuasion one way or another. But before you bring up a "potential person" argument ("It doesn't matter how complex or self-sufficient the organism is, it will be a person in the future"), keep in mind: Contraception prevents "potential people," yet most sexually active Protestants use it constantly. Exactly how far back are we willing to extend potential personhood? Would I be murdering a baby if I had sex with a woman while she's on the Pill? Or does personhood begin earlier, when I drive to her house? What about when I kiss her, or first ask her out? Is it already murder? Folks, this isn't the freakin' Terminator.

You either think that collection of cells is a person, right then, right there in the doctor's office, or you don't. That's the dividing line between murder and not-murder. And while I don't expect you to change your opinion to match mine--I can't emphasize that enough--you also don't have the right to insist your personal opinion on this subject should be enforced as federal law. There are simply too many opinions about when life begins for anyone to claim they hold inarguable universal truth. After all, if the Pope is right, most Protestants are murderers, many times over. Who's to say?

Enough about that. My point about abortion in the last blog entry was really just an element in my larger argument; namely, that we base our ethics on who we consider our kin--not on anything in our religion. That's why we can all read the same Bible but still derive widely differing ethical standards when it comes to abortion, gay rights, military aggression, the death penalty, and so on. It's also why nineteenth-century people on both sides of the slavery issue used the Bible to justify their opposing beliefs. When the New Atheists say you don't need to believe in the word-for-word truth of the Bible to be an ethical person, they're not just guessing. Most atheists are good people, at least as good as most Christians and far less hypocritical. In fact, I could make a compelling case that atheists' ethics are sometimes nobler in that they're based on moral philosophy and logic, not "because the Bible told us to" or out of fear of some torturous afterlife scenario.

Not that I fault Christians for being hypocritical, by the way--there's no way any Christian could possibly follow every last moral commandment in the Bible, yet they're expected to act as if they've done so or risk serious trouble. That situation makes anyone crazy. Trust me, I know from personal experience. I was a "bad Jehovah's Witness" and "leading a double life" all through high school. How the hell could I not? Don't ever lie! Don't ever hurt someone's feelings! Don't ever think about sex! Don't ever doubt the book of Genesis! Don't forget to study every word of the Bible! Don't contemplate the contradictions in the Bible! Insist they're not there! Love your non-Witness neighbors! Abhor their behavior! Mock their doctrinal discrepancies! Don't even think about yours!

Oh, my God! It can't be done, by you or me. In fact, I'm so glad I don't have to try anymore! I just have to be the best version of myself I can learn how to be. I owe that to the world and myself. It doesn't matter whether I owe it to God, because I owe it to you.

Like me, Frank Schaeffer was raised in an evangelical, fundamental Christian faith, so I empathize with his difficult progression away from all that toward a more logical and, ultimately, more rewarding idea of God. Thanks again to the reader who mentioned Schaeffer's work, as I greatly enjoyed his book Patience with God and recommend it to all of you. I wanted to share a few more passages--hopefully they'll whet your appetite. "I can't prove this," he writes..

"...but I think that any person who remains a 'professional Christian' in the evangelical/fundamentalist world for a lifetime, especially any pastor, risks becoming an atheist and/or a liar. Such individuals put on an act of certainty. Sooner or later they become flakes faking it, or quit. Worse yet, some just stop asking questions. The very fact that a preacher can fool others when he or she has so many doubts makes the self-appointed mediator of faith the deepest cynic of all if, that is, he or she doesn't embrace paradox.

"If you have to be correct all the time, while knowing that you are wrong most of the time, you become an actor. Been there, done that. If you think that to 'be a Christian' means you have to identify with a club you loathe, you'll have to choose to redefine your faith or lose it--even if it costs you a paycheck and your 'good' life."

Yeah, Schaeffer and I are on the same page in many ways. I like him. Patience with God is a thoughtful and unabashedly emotional record of one man's struggle to find useful meaning from Christianity after the fundamentalist nonsense he was taught as a child. I think many of us can identify with him, whether we're ready to admit that or not. If you can, by the way, I don't think it automatically makes you an atheist or even an agnostic. It just means you're being honest with yourself and, if you're in a position where you can be, others.

Another reader commented that by questioning whether Jesus's resurrection really happened exactly the way the Gospels say it did (in their contradictory way, of course), I deny "the truth and power of Jesus." Well...sort of. I am questioning whether everything in the New Testament is true, and I certainly question Jesus's alleged superpowers. Look, if you come to court to claim your Hispanic neighbor Jesus stole your lawn furniture, the judge is going to need more than just your word for it. No matter how sincere you look, anecdotal evidence isn't convincing evidence. Now imagine how much more proof the judge would need if you claim your Hispanic neighbor stole your lawn furniture after returning from the dead. Do you really think a few vaguely similar "eyewitness accounts" would do the trick? "No, we swear, Your Honor, honest!"

I understand why skepticism about the resurrection of Christ freaks Christians out, though. They need him to be alive. They need him to be working on their behalf. They need Christ the Riz to be their Lord and Master, King of Kings. I don't. First of all, I don't believe the Adam and Eve story, so I don't believe the silly idea that sin is passed down genetically like cystic fibrosis. I can't understand how Christ being tortured to death, tragic though it was, did anything to alleviate our suffering or reduce our imperfections. When I ask Christians how one injustice fixes our problems, especially since it's abundantly clear we're all still really imperfect two thousand years later no matter how much we "believe," I get weird fuzzy answers that don't agree or, frankly, make a lick of sense.

What I need from Jesus is an ethical framework, and I got that, completely. I don't need a savior. From what? I'm as human, as good or evil, as any Christian I ever met. If "getting saved" actually reduced sin, the most avowedly Christian states would have the lowest crime rates. They don't. They'd have the lowest teen pregnancy rates. They don't. They'd have the lowest poverty rates, as Jesus spoke again and again about charity to the poor. They don't. Quite the contrary, in fact. Am I wrong?

Which brings us to this wonderful idea that religion and science are equally valid ways to learn about the world. Well, let's consider. We've already agreed religious people aren't more moral or ethical than nonreligious people. Do they understand the world better? You tell me. If the Church had had its way, what would our understanding of the universe be? The Church fought the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun. WRONG. The Church fought surgery on the grounds that the body's interior is God's inviolate property. WRONG. The Church thought slavery was moral (as did the writers of the Bible, by the way, in both the Old and New Testament). WRONG. The Church thought women were inferior to men. WRONG. The Church thought being gay was a deliberate choice, therefore a sin. WRONG. Exactly what did the Church get right?

Look, I'm not saying science has a perfect track record, nor that it always makes the most ethical choices. But I'll stack its résumé up against religion's any day of the freakin' week.

The Christians I talked to said religion is still necessary because science is the search for facts, while religion is the search for meaning. And that sounds lovely. Truth be told, I let it slide in the article. But y'know what? As pretty as it sounds, that idea doesn't hold much weight, either. For most Christians, religion "means" God made us perfectly, then watched helplessly as His perfect creations somehow made a mistake, then cursed our entire species with mortality as punishment for what two newborn people did, then killed everyone on Earth except one single family, then decided the only way He could end sin was to allow His first and favorite son to be tortured to death, then watched for two thousand more years while sin and death kept right on happening...I mean, holy crap, Gentle Reader, where exactly is all this MEANING I'm supposed to appreciate?

I ask again: What exactly is the MEANING of religion? Is it that God loves us? He has a funny way of showing it. Is it that He wants us to be good? He hasn't set an example; on the contrary, the God of the Bible is a jealous, racist, misogynist, homophobic, mass murdering bully. Best case scenario, He changed His mind after all these Old Testament atrocities and set up the death of His son to correct them, a gambit which accomplished not one noticeable improvement in the world. I have to confess, friends, I find myself at a loss. I grant you science doesn't offer much in the way of MEANING, but at least whatever meaning it does offer makes sense.

Okay, BUT! But, but, but! That's only if the Bible is true, right? Let's see what Schaeffer has to say about that:

Evangelical/fundamentalists have bought into an idea that my mother used to phrase as a dire warning: 'If you pick and choose between verses in the Bible, the whole thing will unravel! If it's not all true, none of it is!' Because picking and choosing is what thinking is, thinking becomes a threat. Who knows where asking questions might lead? And that is why all so-called evangelist/fundamentalist intellectual activity has such a hollow ring to it. It begins with its 'answer' and then twists itself into knots trying to justify the conclusion."

Every Christian picks and chooses between verses in the Bible. Let me say that again. Every Christian picks and chooses between verses in the Bible. After all, Christian readers, you don't abstain from shellfish or pork. You don't sacrifice livestock or stay home on the Sabbath. You shave your beard. You never stone anyone for adultery, even those really adulterous adulterers. You revile. You make graven images. You disrespect your parents. By the time you're done shrugging away verses you don't like, all that's left are the Gospels (especially John 3:16, for some reason) and the platitudes of the Psalms. You've read so little of your sacred book so carelessly, you had no idea it changes its mind about what happens in the afterlife several times (Ecclesiastes 9:5). You didn't know it says Judas died two different ways (Matthew 27:5, Acts 1:18), or that two different people were said to have killed Goliath (2 Samuel 21:19). The sad truth is, I know the Bible better than most Christians, and I have to tell you, the best thing you can do if you want to believe every word of the Bible is don't read every word of the Bible.

So religion, at least the Christian religion, offers a book full of ignorant "science," abominable "morals," contradictory "history," inconsistent promises for the afterlife including eternal damnation as God's "just" punishment for a few short decades of imperfection, and a "meaning" that doesn't make any sense or address any of our actual problems in life. Count me out. If we're talking about the God of the Bible, I'm an atheist, out and proud. The choice between present-day science and present-day organized religion is not a choice between two equally true or useful propositions, no matter how I had to play it in the pages of the Weekly Volcano.

So why am I still talking about all this? Why even question whether there's any such thing as a "higher truth" in the Universe? I mean, haven't I already made up my mind against it? It sure sounds like it, right?

Not so fast, Gentle Reader...

(To be continued...)

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20Sep/109

I Am an Ethical Christian

You may have noticed some changes to this site. The name has officially changed, for one thing; Carv's Thinky Blog is back to being more about my day-to-day meditations than it is about selling books. I missed that less mercenary version, and I know some of you did, too.

Among the changes: I've added old blog entries and will add more this week. I'm adding screenplays as I have a chance to reread them. I'm finding work on old CDs that I haven't looked at it in ten years. If I find old poems or song lyrics worth revisiting, I'll post those, with the warning that despite having been published as a poet, I consider my skills in that regard unimpressive at best. I've added feature articles for the Weekly Volcano, and later this week, I'll add my cover story from this week's edition. It's about the so-called New Atheists--folks like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who consider all religion toxic and openly seek its demise. That will lead to a follow-up entry here on the subject of my own hopes for the Christian religion. Those of you who feel I have an ongoing axe to grind may approach that entry with particular interest.

In the meantime, this:

-----

I think if Jesus was the Son of God, then so are we. I do not believe the man had any magical divine superpowers, nor am I persuaded by the anecdotal evidence, written decades after his death, that he returned to life and ascended to Heaven three days later. Maybe it happened; probably not. It's certainly never happened to anyone in my experience or documented history, and the evidence presented for it wouldn't stand up in a secular court. As Carl Sagan was wont to observe, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the resurrection simply doesn't have that. All the same, I consider myself a Christian, in that I admire Jesus's views and principles as they've been passed down to us. If you've read Lightfall, you know I consider Jesus superhuman in at least one sense: His ability to empathize with people outside his tribe, gender, experience and moral code was vastly superior to anyone else in his time and place, and maybe to anyone in ours. Moreover, he was able to spread his enlightened worldview to others in a way that speaks to us halfway around the world, two thousand years later. Even Dr. Sagan would have to admit that was and is extraordinary.

If all Jesus ever did was walk on water or cater a wedding, would people live and die in his name? Criss Angel can walk on water (supposedly), and I don't see anyone building him shrines. What made Jesus special wasn't his supposed miracles, it was the actual miracle of his ethics. He thought outside his tribe and was able to see "Them" as "Us." We all struggle with that. Some might say it's only human. Others will admit it's built into our genes, an outdated evolutionary strategy.

Consider. My stepdad was almost universally regarded as a good man. Yet I heard him use racist language on several occasions. Even worse, he held and voiced dismissive opinions about blacks, Mexicans, poor people--pretty much anyone from a culture outside his own. I often heard him use patently, demonstrably untrue generalizations like "They don't value life the way we do" and "They just want everything to be handed to them." So how do we reconcile these two facts about his nature? Was he really a good man? Of course he was. Once he'd actually met a person of another culture, be that person black, gay, handicapped, poor--you name it--he'd give that person the shirt off his back, sometimes literally. My stepfather wasn't a bad man at all. He was simply bound by a limitation we all share: a preference for the familiar. Biologists refer to it as "kin selection," with the proviso that we often consider ourselves "related" to people who aren't in fact part of our family.

If you'll pardon a longer-than-usual quote, primatologist Frans de Waal had this to say about altruism (specifically the ability to be generous to people outside our kin) among primates:

"Empathy and solidarity have held human groups together for ages. Admittedly, these groups were small. In both animals and humans empathy is biased. It is always stronger for the in-group than the out-group, stronger for one's own family than for nonrelatives. These biases are not hard to explain in evolutionary terms and have also been found in animal studies.

"For example, we conducted an experiment with capuchin monkeys in which they could choose between an option that rewarded themselves or one that rewarded themselves plus a neighbor sitting next to them. Guess which option they preferred? They went with the prosocial option even though it gave them no extra food: they were just happy to see another get food, we assume. But in the same study we also found that if they were paired with a monkey they didn’t know, their prosocial tendencies vanished, and they became quite selfish.

"I think humans act the same, so that it is a real challenge to build societies of the size that we have. We still have the psychology of a primate that evolved in smaller groups, even though now we live among millions of strangers. In order to do so successfully we need to rely on a blend of old psychology that makes us empathize with others and an appeal to what is good for all of us. We need to consider the common good insofar as it helps ourselves. Certain goals are better achieved together than alone. For example, in the health-care debate, instead of appealing to empathy and morality, we also need to bring up selfish considerations. Which system brings the greatest service to the greatest number of people? If the quality of care that we receive ranks below that of dozens of other nations, and if these other nations spend less per capita than we do, there is an obvious argument that we’re not getting our money’s worth. This is a simple capitalist calculation, which has little to do with empathy."

I include that entire three-paragraph quote because it shows how kin preference and gene-selfishness bear on the more ubiquitous topics of ethics, government, law and political strategy. I think it behooves each of us to examine our political and ethical views carefully and see whether any of them derive from unreasonable restrictions on who's one-of-us and who's not.

My stepdad, for example, said and believed unkind things about people overseas because, without realizing it, he saw them as less-than-him. He and his kin were family, Americans who looked and thought like him were Us, and everyone else was the distrusted, less-than-people Them. But please understand, I'm not analyzing my stepfather's behavior just because he's dead and can't defend himself. I'm doing it, not simply because I loved him and wish I could mitigate his less laudable opinions, but because I see some of his behavior in my own.

The truth is, there are people and other similar organisms I consider less-than-me. When I see a welfare parasite leaching off the noble intentions of others, I immediately shift that person into a mental folder called those-who-don't-deserve-it. I may even be right, but I need to know where my opinions are coming from before I can evaluate them rationally.

When I say I don't believe all abortion is murder, it's because for the first trimester of an embryo's life, I consider that organism less-than-human. An embryo in its first few months of life lacks a nervous system; it cannot think or feel pain. Its parents, on the other hand, can, so I afford them greater considerations and privileges in my thinking. If an abortion in the first trimester will prevent enormous hardship to the parents, then I can't really argue that it should be illegal. In fact, I'm considering whether that embryo, once it matures into an "actual person," will stand a high chance of happiness. If circumstances render that improbable, that gets weighed into my decision.

I know my mathematical analysis of that particular scenario will seem harsh, even heartless, to many. I know some of you believe an embryo is a "baby" from day one, therefore a person, worthy of privileges and considerations equal to those we enjoy. To you, the Golden Rule extends to that embryo. To you, anyone who chooses abortion is choosing to murder a baby--a person. I understand why you're so adamantly opposed to that. All I can say in my defense is that when I look at an organism more closely resembling a goldfish than an adult human or even a baby, I'm more worried about the life and relative happiness of the mother.

When liberals say things like, "I don't understand how conservatives can be anti-choice but pro-war and pro-death penalty," they miss the essential point. To a conservative, an embryo is Us. They're not anti-choice or even pro-life, they're anti-the-murdering-of-babies--and geez, why isn't everyone, right? Conversely, to such conservatives a convicted murderer is no longer a Person, same-as-us. To them, neither are the people who live in countries on which we declare and wage war. To them, bombs falling on civilians--even women and children--are as offensive as tossing a grenade into a chicken coop. It's messy, sure, but not exactly murder. Besides, "people over there don't value life the way we do."

We all have clear dividers in our head between those who are family, whom we defend whether right or wrong; kin, meaning people who remind us of us; and the rest: those who are less-than-us. For my stepfather, Hispanics were less-than-him until the moment he actually talked to them. Same went for gay people, black people, Muslim people, poor people, and Democratic Senators from the great state of California. But what about me? Where do my dividers lie?

I've already stated my preference for adults over first-trimester embryos. I can defend that on biological grounds but will understand if you consider it liberal b.s. I consider convicted murderers less-than-me, too, but I've seen DNA evidence overturn too many "solid" convictions to be sure of my beliefs. I'm pro-death penalty but only under absolutely certain conditions of proof. I opposed the war in Iraq because I don't consider Iraqi citizens less-than-me; same goes for the people of Afghanistan. On the other hand, I was and still am heavily in favor of putting Osama bin Laden's head on a pike in the middle of the World Trade Center Memorial. Why? I don't care what your politics are, you kill three thousand of my kin as they arrive in their office on a Tuesday morning, and I will see you in Hell.

By the way, sometimes a disaster like 9/11 forces us to reassess who's in our kin group. Maybe that's why catastrophes bring out something special in so many people. I just came across this in a Manhattanite's blog:

"wednesday night [September 12, 2001] we came home from dinner, and someone had left little green post-its on the doors in our building that said 'i love you'."

What strikes me about the ethics of Christ is that it's all about expanding your kin. Suddenly it's not just male, ethnically Hebrew people of a certain Jewish denomination, it's about Roman tax collectors and Samaritan women and the morally fallen. As I pursue the goal of growing as a person, I'm taking a careful look at whom I consider less-than-me and whether or not I can really justify that.

My friend Eric recently noted that I've had a lifelong obsession with persuading people to believe what is "right" (I think he meant "true"). He's dead on. So why am I like that? What does it matter to me whether you believe Noah's flood really happened or not? Do I consider fundamentalist Christians gullible? Yes. Do I consider them stupid? Often, yes. Is that fair? Often, yes. Is it good?

The Jesus I believe in had a supernatural ability to include, even embrace others in his worldview. I pledge to follow his example to the best of my all-too-human ability. Of course I do think it's important to know that some things are true and some things are false, and that what is false has no business being wedged into our public education system. I still have trouble taking fundamentalists seriously as political candidates. But if I'm ever going to persuade people that it's worthwhile to separate the truth from the mythology, I also have to be kind enough to value the meaning in all that mythology. It does matter to people, and belief in a personal God--even Yahweh or Allah--doesn't make those people any less-than-me.

A reader pointed me to Frank Schaeffer, so I'm happily reading his thoughtful, emotional book Patience with God. I think this passage, from p. 63 in the hardcover edition, deserves consideration here:

"[Daniel] Dennett points out [in Breaking the Spell--Religion as a Natural Phenomenon] that religions evolve. Perhaps he means this as a criticism of religion, but for me it's a hopeful sign. I'm glad that religion changes as we do. Perhaps someday it--and we--will grow up. My quibble with Dennett's view, that somehow religious evolution is a problem for religion, is that individual religions aren't the point. What is the point is the question raised by the existence of any religion: in other words our longing for meaning.

"Because every plant, four-legged creature, and human, fish, and bird has evolved from single-celled organisms, our evolutionary journey is clearly toward complexity. And what religion is, is the expression of a dimension of complex consciousness...

"Dennett says, 'I look around and I'm so glad to be alive!' He 'gets' the spiritual wonder of life. I just think Dennett is using a needlessly limited vocabulary to express his spirituality. Nevertheless, Dennett comes up with one of the best definitions of what religion is. He writes of 'keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living.'"

As I said above, we'll talk more about my hopes for the Christian religion later this week, but before I go I want to leave you with one last quote, which I also discovered through Schaeffer (and, it bears repeating, my readers). It was written by Søren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling almost 170 years ago:

"It is now high time to explain that the real reason why man is offended at Christianity is because it is too high, because its goal is not man's goal, because it would make of a man something so extraordinary that he is unable to get it into his head."

Amen, brother Christian. Preach it.

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10Sep/100

Peace Be Upon Us

From Facebook, 7 September 2010:

Heather C----: "Absolute freedom, in the hands of idiots, is a dangerous thing. This, in my opinion, is the same as any other terrorist act. They are not burning these holy books to keep safe their church's followers from the 'evil' teachings of the east. They are burning these books to incite riot, to entice outrage and fury and to throw a symbolic fire bomb into a crowd of people they feel threaten their beliefs. Shame on you. Shame. On. You."

Robert N----- (Heather's former high school classmate): "Im going to burn a few myself !!! to bad we can only burn a koran tho [sic]"

To be honest, if some self-important, fundamentalist imbecile wants to burn a pile of Qur'ans in Florida, that's his business, and I note with great satisfaction that you have to buy books before you can burn them so it's a passive-aggressive gesture at best. In this age of easy printing, book-burning accomplishes only self-aggrandizement, which is probably what said imbecile was looking for in the first place. The best we can do is ignore him.

Unfortunately, we didn't, so now his stupid plan (I won't say "crusade") might cause unpredictable dangers for American troops in Muslim countries. It's also stirred the dregs of society to expose xenophobic dimbulbs like Robert here. Good. We should know who we're dealing with.

As has been noted by The Daily Show and many other sources, the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" is neither at Ground Zero (it's two blocks away, on the site of a shuttered Burlington Coat Factory) nor is it a mosque (it's a community center, with a library, a gym, a swimming pool, an exhibition hall, a memorial for victims of 9/11, and a prayer space on one of its thirteen floors). The Cordoba Institute, for which the facility will be named, promises cooking classes. (Terrorist cooking classes!) The bylaws of the Cordoba Institute decree only fifty percent of its board can ever be Muslims, and one of the stated goals of the Community Center is to "promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America and globally...to amplify the voices of the overwhelming majority of Muslims whose love for America and commitment to peace gets drowned out by the actions of a few extremists." It's actually a pretty tough venture to complain about, and what better place for it than Manhattan? The last thing al Qaeda wants is interfaith understanding and peace in America.

Enough about that. You know my politics by now, and I imagine you could've predicted where I stand on most of it already. But it reminded me that for all our debates about Islam, most Americans know very little about it. Without even a basic understanding of the religion, it's easy to assume "they don't respect life the way we do" and "they just want to kill us and burn our flag" and "Islam is a terrorist cult." I would venture a guess that most Americans have never even talked to a practicing Muslim for more than a minute or two, so why do we think our opinion is worth a toss anyway?

Here's the catch: I myself know very little about Islam. I've never read more than a few suras (chapters) of the Qur'an. When I wrote about Genesis, I added many hours of special research to thirty-plus years of hardcore study of the Bible and its various proponents. I could claim some level of expertise; but I can't do that with the Qur'an. What I write about the sacred text of Islam is the opinion of a total novice (some might say ignoramus) with no special attachment to its insights.

So here's what I know. According to Muslims, the Qur'an was taught by the angel Jibril (i.e., Gabriel) to the merchant and shepherd Muhammad ibn 'Abdullah (peace be upon him--more on that in a minute) over decades around 630 AD. Muslims regard Muhammad as the seventh and final prophet in a roster that includes Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. The Arabic word Qur'an, often anglicized as "Koran," means "recitation." (It's actually spelled in Arabic script, of course, but I have no convenient way of presenting the word in its original form.) The book is often called the "Holy Qur'an," but I won't do that because I'd be lying. The truth is I don't think any book has been dictated by God, so I don't consider the Qur'an holy. I do consider it sacred, though, in that it's "devoted or dedicated to a deity or to some religious purpose; consecrated" (Dictionary.com). If you believe an angel recited God's words to Muhammad and made him memorize them over decades, more power to you.

Side note: When Muslims refer to Muhammad, they often add the phrase "peace be upon him" or its abbreviation, "pbuh." I've chosen not to do that here--again, to avoid accusations of hypocrisy--but some non-Muslims do so as a token of respect, similar to capitalizing pronouns for God in Judeo-Christian contexts.

Those who believe the Qur'an to be a blueprint for terrorism will find little in its pages to support their prejudice. It's less than eighty thousand words, a bit shorter than my own book Lightfall and a tenth the length of the Bible, which helps explain how millions of Muslims memorized the entire text over the centuries. Muhammad didn't actually write the book down or collate it into its present form; that was largely the work of a caliph named Uthman ibn 'Affan. Experts are divided over the extent of Muhammad's literacy, though he was a businessman so it's likely he could read and write at least enough to get by. It begins simply enough:

1 The Prologue (Al-Fatihah: Makki)
________________________________________
In the name of Allah, most benevolent, ever-merciful. ALL PRAISE BE to Allah, Lord of all the worlds,
2. Most beneficent, ever-merciful,
3. King of the Day of Judgment.
4. You alone we worship, and to You alone turn for help.
5. Guide us (O Lord) to the path that is straight,
6. The path of those You have blessed,
7. Not of those who have earned Your anger, nor those who have gone astray.

Not too threatening, right? It could almost be one of the Psalms. Well, okay, there is that "Allah" in there; that's kinda weird. Except Allah is just Arabic for "The God," meaning The One True God, so it's stupid to get too worked up about that. Muslims regard Allah as the same monotheistic deity worshiped by Jews and Christians and, as stated above, they revere the patriarchs and Messiah of Western faiths. To call Islam (which means "submission" to God) a "cult" would be both insulting and untrue. The sociological definition of a cult is an unorthodox, often anti-establishment, religious group centered around a charismatic leader. By that (admittedly academic) definition, Islam began as a cult, but so did Christianity and many of its current denominations.

In modern parlance, of course, "cult" means "a religion I don't like," which opens a whole new can of worms. I can only offer my agnostic perspective here. To me, most religions are commendable and illogical in equal measure. I have a fundamental objection to any mortal, finite, imperfect human being telling me he knows God's opinion on anything. On those days when I believe in a Higher Power, I'm humble enough to admit I'd be far less significant than a paramecium to such a hyper-cosmic being. I feel it's the height of arrogance to suppose God cares about me or my species any more than He cares about the fate of galactic clusters elsewhere in the universe. I don't believe God holds our lives for ransom until we pray hard enough to effect an improvement. I don't believe He's insecure enough to care whether we love and worship Him, and I don't believe He gives a fig one way or the other what we do with our genitalia. But I know that to most of you, those sentiments seem less like reasonable humility and more like blasphemous hostility. I'm sorry if my comments insult you or make you angry, but my point is I don't believe the tenets of Islam or any other specific faith. In other words, I don't find Islam any easier or harder to believe than Christianity.

Again, I haven't read most of the Qur'an, but I can't find anything in it to earn its reputation as a terrorist guidebook. Granted, it has a fair number of militant passages--well, look, here's one:

(From Sura 9, "Repentance":)

29. Fight those people of the Book who do not believe in God and the Last Day, who do not prohibit what God and His Apostle have forbidden, nor accept divine law, until all of them pay protective tax in submission.
30. The Jews say, "Ezra is the son of God;" the Christians say, "Christ is the son of God." That is what they say with their tongues following assertions made by unbelievers before them. May they be damned by God: How perverse are they!
31. They consider their rabbis and monks and the Christ, son of Mary, to be gods apart from God, even though they had been enjoined to worship only one God, for there is no god but He. Too holy is He for what they ascribe to Him!

Let's be honest, he has a point--but it gets worse. In some translations, for example, Sura 72:15 reads, "The disbelievers [i.e., non-Muslims] are the firewood of Hell." Yikes!

Now, I won't claim to be proficient in Muslim history, but as I understand it, the Quraysh tribesmen who lived in Muhammad's home town of Mecca were essentially at war with the people of Medina, where he lived at the time. Muhammad was himself born of the Quraysh tribe, but his homeboys abhorred his teachings and opposed them and him at every turn. It seems clear Muhammad was in riled-up, self-defensive mode when these words were first uttered.

I don't think Jews or Christians have much of a leg to stand on here, frankly. Yahweh was the Hebrew war god, and even Jesus once said, "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword." (Matthew 10:34) He also said, "But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me." (Luke 19:27) Christians would protest it's a matter of context and "what about all the peaceful things he said" and so forth, and they'd be right. Muslims are likewise justified when they defend their prophet's teachings, personality, and intent.

Here's the entire text of Sura 109, "The Unbelievers," one of the last few chapters in the Qur'an:

1. In the name of Allah, most benevolent, ever-merciful: Say, "O you unbelievers,
2. I do not worship what you worship,
3 Nor do you worship who I worship,
4. Nor will I worship what you worship,
5. Nor will you worship who I worship:
6. To you your way, to me my way."

In other words, live and let live. Who could argue with that? Perhaps the most famous quote from the Qur'an is from ayat (verse) 5:32: "[W]hosoever kills a human being, except (as punishment) for murder or for spreading corruption in the land, it shall be like killing all humanity; and whosoever saves a life, saves the entire human race." The word "Islam" comes from the same Arabic root as "salaam," a greeting that (like "shalom" in Hebrew) means "peace." Granted, the Qur'an can be a bit bipolar when it comes to peace and violence, but so is the Bible; and like the Bible, its most warlike passages were written during times of war. We humans often invoke God when we're busy killing people we don't agree with. Again, we're so stunningly conceited we convince ourselves He cares who wins, even as we tear the children of our enemies limb from limb.

I've been using Ahmed Ali's English translation of the Qur'an, by the way, but there are many, and I gather there are objections to all of them. That's because the Arabic text of the Qur'an is said to be so ravishingly beautiful that it brings grown men to tears. It's written in poetry of a highly complex verse form considered inimitable by mere humans. Arabic-speaking Muslims claim translating the Qur'an into any other language robs the book of the mesmerizing beauty that proves its divine authenticity, but they've done so anyway to bring the message of the Prophet to the masses. Converts to Islam are encouraged to learn Arabic and memorize the text in its original form. Personally, I find the fraction of the Qur'an I've read mind-numbingly repetitive, but no more so than the Hebrew Psalms.

Actually, reading the Qur'an turns out to be a lot like reading the Old Testament: truly noble, cooperative ideals are strewn like flowers into a bloody, petty history of sanctimonious tribal warfare. By contrast, I've known exactly one practicing Muslim in my life, and he was a sweet guy who brought our office tasty homemade treats every Eid ul-Fitr, the holiday which follows the Ramadan month of daylight fasts. I could no more condemn that guy or his religion than I could condemn Christianity for the atrocities of its history or modern extremists. We tend to have a blind spot where our own faith and culture are concerned. We know, for example, most Christians are good; so although the monsters who demolished the Murrah Building and its day care center were associated with a movement called Christian Identity, we never refer to them as "Christian terrorists." So maybe it's time we Americans quit holding al Qaeda and its murderous actions against the entirety of Islam. Terrorists are just simpleminded, overzealous murderers regardless of their faith. I know I'm preaching to the converted here, but as (by happy coincidence!) today is Eid ul-Fitr, perhaps this toe-dip into the Qur'an will help prepare us for debates with Islamophobic morons who, all too often, claim divine inspiration for their pathetic revilements. Oh, and by the way:

"revile: 1. to assail with contemptuous or opprobrious language; address or speak of abusively. 2. to speak abusively." (Dictionary.com)

"Be not deceived: ...nor revilers...shall inherit the kingdom of God..."

That's from the Qur'an, in Sura...Oh, wait, I meant 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Sorry about that. My mistake. Happy Eid ul-Fitr, Gentle Reader. May it bring you peace, no matter your culture or religion.

Eid Mubarak! Kul 'am wantum bikhair. ("Blessed Festival! May you be well every year.")

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