Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Somebody's sins but not mine

Music and Religion Part 2:
The Omnipotent Sky Wizard

This posting is in reply to Samuel's comment on my recent blog Atheist Manifesto.

Samuel,  I'd  like to thank you for commenting on my posting, I appreciate the feedback. Music is connected with spirituality in a million ways, so religion is not necessarily outside the purview of this blog. Allow me to respond to the points you raised in your comments.

1. Why have people in all cultures believed in God? If there is no God where do you get your morality?

The concept of God is a wish-fulfuilment fantasy which helps us escape from the unsavoury reality that we're all gonna die. Human societies universally devise creation myths to describe not only where we came from but where we're going. The stories are surprisingly similar across cultures due to the universality of human experience and perhaps as a manifestation of the collective unconscious as described by Jung.

This has been demonstrated convincingly in instances of the collision between technologically advanced cultures and  traditional tribal societies - so-called 'cargo cults' - in which less sophisticated cultures ascribe supernatural powers to people and things they don't understand.

When it comes to morality, cultural anthropology suggests that ethical laws are a natural product of society - that as communities grow they need to be able to police and protect themselves and thus codify rules to ensure the continued safety and survival of the group. Anyone who has observed children at play will have seen how they instinctively improvise rules and boundaries in an effort to ensure fairness.

Are we to believe that in 200,000 years of pre-Christian history, no-one came up with "Thou shall not kill" until Moses received illumination from a combustible shrub? Kinda ironic considering all the murder, rape and genocide God sanctions in the Old Testament. Do we really need a homicidal “omnipotent sky wizard” to threaten us with eternal hellfire to prevent us from murdering with abandon?

If you have ever used a razor, enjoyed a bacon sandwich, eaten shellfish, sworn at your parents, worked on a Sunday, partaken in homoeroticism, committed adultery or not been a virgin (if female) on your wedding night, your Bible demands you be executed immediately. How's that for 'morality'?

2. Don't forget that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot were atheists, and committed the biggest mass murders in history.

This has to be one of the most commonly held myths about atheists.

Not only was Hitler a Catholic, he prayed for 'Almighty God' to bless Nazi Germany and invoked Christian faith and anti-atheistic language to justify his genocidal madness. Nazi followers regularly described Hitler as a 'godlike' figure.

Incidentally, not one Catholic in the Third Reich was excommunicated by the Catholic Church before, during or after the Second World War - not even Hitler himself. Yet Galileo was not absolved of heresy until 1992.

As for Stalin and Pol Pot, while they likely were atheists, they did not commit murder and genocide in the name of atheism. Rather they aimed to found a cult of the state very much resembling religion in its tone.

The problem with fascism and communism was not that they were too critical of religion, but that they were too much like religion in their manipulation of ritual, dogma, and the cult of personality to wage war against the defenseless. As Sam Harris says, an absence of faith or overabundance of skeptical inquiry was not the problem with these societies. They abandoned accepted standards of human decency and compassion largely because of their uncritical attachment to genocidal dogma.

Similarly, a literal belief in Muslim dogma had a lot to do with the tragedy of  9/11. And misguided Christian dogma has everything to do with the fact that stem cell research has been consistently blocked in the United States, that sexual abstinence campaigns have failed miserably, and that the Catholic Church has discouraged condom use in AIDS-ravaged Africa.

When was the last time a war was waged for a scientific aim, or a group of atheists obstructed valuable medical research which could save millions of lives, or secular humanists flew a plane into a skyscraper or exploded a suicide bomb in a busy market place filled with women and children?

3. Even one of the greatest scientists in history Albert Einstein believed in God.

Another misconception. Einstein demonstrably did not believe in a supernatural entity. Rather he used the notion of god as shorthand for the unknown mysteries of the universe or as a personification of the forces of nature.

 Here's what Einstein wrote in a letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind on January 3, 1954:

"The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. “

4. Look at all the times science has gotten things wrong. The complexity of the universe indicates the existence of a designer. And the elements of this unique setup are perfect for life when they might easily have been wrong.  Look at  the bacterial flagellum, an example of irreducible complexity and evidence for intelligent design of our universe and which proves the falseness of evolution.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The bacterial flagellum isn't even irreducibly complex. Scientists have shown time and again that parts of the flagella of various bacteria correspond to other structures that have different functions, that intermediate evolutionary stages have their uses and...well,  I could go on but if you want to know more check here.

I could also go into the facts of evolution, how vast mountains of evidence from biology, physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, geology, astronomy, archaeology, anthropology, genetics and other disciplines overwhelmingly prove it has taken place on our planet across billions of years.  If you insist - as many Christians do - that the earth is 6,000 years old, how do you account for the fact that organized farming began between 8500 and 7000 B.C. and that the Sumerians invented glue 7,000 years ago?

You're right on one thing. Science is not perfect and it has gotten things wrong…thousands of  times. But the thing is, it's usually scientists who discover and correct these errors, not religious believers. In this sense science is self-critical and self-monitoring in ways beyond the wildest imagination of the religious believer.

If there’s one thing we've learned from religion, it's that it has been wrong, wrong, wrong and consistently behind the times when it comes to science-based truth. Just ask Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

It’s clear that we don't understand the universe, but it’s equally clear that books like the Bible and the Koran do not offer anything like our best understanding of it.

Tell me: why doesn't your god heal amputees who pray? Why does he ignore starving children but give bank executives obscenely large bonuses? Why is your Biblical god such a huge fan of slavery? Why do Christians get divorced at the same rates as everyone else? Why do bad things happen to good people, even to good Christians. Example: the thousands of innocent children abused by Catholic priests with the full complicity of the Church?

While creative thinkers and rationalists consistently push forward the boundaries of human knowledge - demystifying superstition and designing our airplanes, computers, vaccines and life-saving medications -  the religious doggedly cling to the same iron age beliefs they unthinkingly absorbed in kindergarten. Those beliefs belong to a different society, a different world, and they represent an entirely different paradigm.

5. Jesus died and was resurrected for the sins of us all, including John Lennon who was a drug user, profaner and adulterer.

Well, as Patti Smith said, Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine.

With regard to the resurrection, given everything that the study of mythology, science and cultural anthropology have taught us in the last 2,000 years, doesn't it make more sense to think of it in symbolic terms?

Resurrection, rebirth and reincarnation are strong components of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, since what could seem more godlike and supernatural to a credulous iron age laity than the ability to transcend death?

Many Biblical scholars feel that the Gospel stories of the resurrection are fictions devised long after Jesus’ death to justify claims of his divinity, and if any truth is to be found in their myths and stories, it’s surely at the metaphorical level.  Even today we speak of 'born again' Christians to denote those who have had a religious conversion. But they’ve been 'reborn' to themselves, right here, right now.

As I've said elsewhere on my blog, when it comes to religion, literalism is the enemy of truth and the father of ignorance. And a little critical thinking will bring you closer to reality and further from religion. That's why St. Augustine had an overwhelming fear of "the disease of curiosity."

But as T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets, "human kind cannot bear very much reality." Nowhere is this more effectively demonstrated than in the nonsensical superstitions parroted by ossified religious cults.

When it comes to John Lennon, what can I say, you're dead right. He was a drug user, profaner and adulterer who by his own admission wasn't much of a father to his first child. In other words a real person with faults and imperfections.  But he'll be remembered as the greatest rock 'n' roller of them all, a charismatic force for peace, equality and social change whose music illuminated the lives of millions.

Like the man said, Samuel: "Imagine no religion."

Amen to that.


Kai said...

Well said, and your Atheism Manifesto too. But I don't think you will make many converts.

Brian said...

That ought to shut him up!