Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sarah Palin

Please, please, please don't vote for Sarah Palin. Even if you are religious, if you value religious freedom, you don't want Sarah Palin in office. You may think that statements like "the Iraq war is part of God's plan" are innocent reflections of her faith. While she may not fully understand the import of this statement personally, it actually reflects the position of a subgroup of Christians, with whom she is well connected, who believe that war in the middle east is part of a prelude to the return of Christ and the Rapture. Now it is already scary enough that she would use religion to justify endless and pointless war, but it gets much, much worse.

It is clear from her connections that Sarah Palin either is, or would be, under the control of her handlers, a dominionist. Another part of God's plan, apparently, is that society should be ruled by his law, as expressed in the Bible. Dominionists actually want this to be literally true, in the U.S. The one thing in the bill of rights which drives these people crazy is the separation of church and state. Of course they have no hope of passing an amendment that removes this explicitly, so their strategy is to get a supreme court that will effectively interpret it out of existence.

Imagine what it would be like if the Bible was the law of the land. Most people are not very familiar with the parts of the old testament where God spells out his laws. It is not a pretty picture. The punishment is usually death. The worst offense, of course, is having the wrong religion. Apostasy is especially bad. Adultery? Death. And so on. Interestingly, Bible literalists who are familiar with the laws seem to have no problem with it. If you ask a knowledgeable fundamentalist whether it seems right to execute someone for adultery, he will be OK with that.

Of course this conversion is not going to happen overnight. It would be a gradual process in which intrusions would be introduced incrementally. Each change would seem small once the previous one became accepted. Right now the mania of the moment is overturning Roe v. Wade. Of course this alone should be reason enough to vote against McCain/Palin. But you shouldn't think that they'll be happy once that is done. That is just the beginning.

Now it does not appear that John McCain is a dominionist or is associated with them. Although he has tried to associate himself with some of the fundamentalist leaders, they all know that he is not really on board, which is why the religious right was never very happy with him. He would, however, appoint supreme court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade. But his reasons for supporting the Iraq war appear to be more patriotic than religious. Wrong either way, of course, but understandable as a kind of stupidity, rather than a mission from God. In any case, one might hope that a McCain presidency would be less damaging than the Bush one has been. But McCain could die, and then there would be hell to pay.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

My Visit from Jehovah's Witnesses

Yesterday I got my wish to have a discussion with two Jehovah's Witnesses who came to my door. There was a man and a woman. Only the man chose to argue with me. I warned them that I was a devout atheist, but this only served to spawn the discussion with a comment on my use of the word devout. I explained that Christians often say that atheism is just another kind of religion, complete with its own dogmatism and closed-mindedness. I freely admit that I am just as passionate about my position as most theists are about theirs, so I have adopted the term to indicate that. But I do try not be be dogmatic or closed-minded.

So this guy basically expounded the JW philosophy, without really trying to convert me. Theirs may be a brighter, more peaceful version of Christianity. They seem to be Bible literalists, but want to separate themselves from other denominations which have distorted, modified, and misinterpreted the Bible to the ends of power, greed, and war. But of course they have their own interpretation, which seems to me to be no less distorted, even though it seems to allow for a somewhat more modern liberal morality, as well as for modern science, including evolution. They do the latter by saying that we are still in the middle of the seventh "day" of creation, and God is resting.

I tried to get him to say what made him think that the Bible was literally true, but he wouldn't. I enumerated all of the usual sources of faith, with the counter-arguments for each. He seemed to politely agree with all of my arguments, but only kept trying to read from the Bible that he had with him, claiming that each passage was marvelously accurate. I tried to point out in each case how he was twisting the interpretation, and that there was no real scientific accuracy. I even pointed out the circularity in Bible belief, that if you start out convinced, then you can find interpretations that justify your conviction.

One of the passages that he read to show how the Bible was scientifically accurate was this: the water comes down from heaven as rain and snow, and it waits to nourish the plants before it goes back up to heaven. The idea was supposed to be that the Bible is teaching about the water cycle, which was not well understood at the time. I think it is safe to say that this is not only inaccurate (the water doesn't really wait to evaporate), but it is a stretch to think that such a statement could not have been written by ordinary people over 2000 years ago.

In addition to other reinterpretations, the JW seem to have a different view of heaven, hell, and revelations. They seem to think there is a heaven, but that it is reserved for a very select few, which does not even include themselves. Apparently there either is no hell, or it is not such a bad place. We didn't discuss this. They do, however, believe there is some sort of rapture-like event coming soon. The difference is that the earth, rather then becoming hell, will become a paradise, and be unified and ruled by heaven and the few people who are taken there to be angels.

So, despite being non-confrontational and mildly interesting, the discussion was somewhat disappointing. I really want to understand the source of people's faith, because I think that this is the key to any hope of breaking it down. And this guy succeeded in keeping this well hidden.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Sam Harris Debates

Recently I have watched some of the debates between Sam Harris and various well-known theists. I have been disappointed in his seeming inability to directly address the main claim of the theists, which I would describe this way: we all have a soul, which is the seat of consciousness, and which also serves as a portal to the supernatural, and thenceforth to god. I have an idea about why he does not address this claim. To properly refute it, you must really take a position on the other side of the mind-body problem, and Mr. Harris is personally unable to do that. To say that we have a soul of this kind is to say that mind and body are dual -- i.e. two separate entities that are connected in some mysterious way. A mind-body duality not only gets you contact with god, but also, potentially, life after death, where only the soul persists. Mr. Harris is known to be ambivalent about life after death, and, of course his meditative experience is suggestive of some possible contact with something transcending the body as we normally understand it. I do not know if he has a precise philosophical position on the mind-body problem itself.

So the debates go something like this: Sam says that some bit from scripture is problematical and the respondent says that cherry picking scripture is fine because the proper interpretation always comes from social context. In my mind the proper response to this claim is as follows. If you read scripture as literature then you are of course free to cherry pick whatever you like. But if you use it as a basis for morality then you must have some separate moral basis for the cherry picking. It seems to me that the only possible separate basis is that god gives modern people additional morality via their souls. If you can't make an argument against the soul then you are stuck accepting the possibility that theists really are talking to god, and that if your own soul fails to make the connection then perhaps there is something defective about it. You can argue that different people seem to hear different moral instructions, but this is simply countered by saying that god tailors his morality to fit the social context of the people he is talking to. No one gets a perfect morality but instead they get one that they can use and that incrementally improves on whatever was already in place.

The simple counter argument to all this is just to say that mind, including consciousness, are simply emergent properties of our immensely complex physical brains. There is no duality necessary to understand any of it, although we obviously understand very little today about how it actually works. In this context we have to understand the very real, and extremely convincing, sense that people have of a personal contact with god. We can hardly have a detailed explanation for this without first having a detailed explanation for, e.g., consciousness, but there is plenty of evidence to the effect that "trance" states can be induced in most people using a variety of techniques, and that people generally have surreal experiences in these trance states. There is no evidence that I am aware of, however, that any knowledge is gained during these trance states which could not be known independently of them. The fact that these states often seem very convincingly real is just an observation about the (still unknown) workings of the brain. This is easy for me to say, because I have never experienced such a state. People who do research on it, and who experience it personally, often find it so compelling that they prefer to believe that they are contacting another part of objective reality than that the experience is confined to their own brains. Remarkable.