Sunday, 30 September 2012

Early memories of an atheist

When I was a child my school had friday morning "scripture" and this, more than anything, is where I realised that I did not accept the claim of god.

I felt sorry then, and still do, for the woman who came in to teach all those young children about her  beliefs. A large hall full of children, sitting cross legged, listening and trying to get their collective heads around the concept of orignal sin.

My first uncomfortable question was "Why, if god knew everything, he did not know that Eve and Adam were going to eat the apple?"

And even as a child, the question of free will seemed intractable. I felt I could not have free will if god made me and knew exactly everything I was ever going to do... If the path of my life was laid out before I was born could any decision I ever made be truly mine?

The poor scripture lady was stuck, I was asking questions about god and faith far outside the "how much does god love me?" queries she was used to answering from children. The fumbled answers she gave all came back to the bible, it was the source of all knowledge of god.

Q: But how do we know the bible is true?
A: Everyone knows god in their heart.

Q: Do people find the knowledge of god without the bible telling them about it?
A: ...

At that point the scripture lady told me to pray for the answers.

My concerns are more sophisticated now, as are the responses, but I still find the answers inadequate.

When I was young, god, the bible, and the church simply did not make any sense, and no-one was able to address my concerns. The whole idea of god just left me asking why? What was his purpose? What did god want to get out of it that he could not get another way that would hurt (us) less?

The lack of a decent response led to my second problem with faith - None of the adults who tried to talk to me about faith were able to adress my concerns. Had these people committed to a belief without applying any critical analysis to it?

I rapidly lost respect for the beliefs of those adults with strong faith and no reason.

Both my mother and father had been brought up in nominally religious households, but religion was not part of my home life and we did not attend church.

My parents wanted me to find my own way and to that end they made me attend the scripture lessons at school for several years so I could make my choice with some perspective. When I asked my parents to write a letter to the school exempting me from scripture studies, the teachers complied but did not take my choice seriously.

It is strange, a child of any age able to articulate a choice of faith has the right to choose, however a child of any age that is able to articulate a rejection of the available faiths on offer is always subject to challenge.

Even in Australia where religion is not a strong influence in society, a child who says they dont accept god gets a wide range of negative reactions. From the occasional smack on the head from the elderly for being "stupid" to bullying and shunning from other children I met few people in my youth who even accepted that it was my choice to make.

Personal beliefs always get respected no matter how bizarre, but a lack of belief, no matter how rationally arrived at is not subject to the same courtesy.

While some adults were obviously unhappy with me when I said I did not believe in god, others with less mainstream beliefs, assumed that the gates were open to explain their own faith to me. I may as well have had a sign around me neck that "Proselytise me!".

I was told about the nature spirits that guided some people, the astral plain others travelled on, even the enlightenment some claimed from meditating with monks in asia. Everyone seemed to think that if I could just see how cool their faith was, that I'd jump in and get me some.

Added to my parents open lack of intellectual restriction led to a pretty broad education on religion, and now in my later years I find I know things about religions that many practicing theists do (however I do NOT claim any theological standing). The diversity and incompatibility of the different faiths I was exposed to, however, made me realize that some of them had to be wrong. There was just too many conflicting claims, and if some of them could be wrong, maybe they could all be wrong.

Most of the claims shared many common elements, but people often included the more extraordinary claims in an attempt to pique my interest. This approach universally backfired because often only a cursory investigation was required to find the evidence insufficient or totally lacking.

The best example of that was someone telling me that men had one less rib because god took a rib from Adam to make Eve.... No, not true. Humans have 24 ribs each. Male or Female, makes no difference. Some individuals have 1 pair of ribs less, but it's not a male or female specific variation. You can find this in almost any book on human anatomy even the really simple ones written for kids - yet you'd be surprised how many adults today accept that claim without even checking it once.

Disrespect and wild claims were nothing, however, compared to the condescension that atheists are often subjected to.

That look you see when someone of faith fixes you with a faint smile, a misty look in their eyes, and a sad slow nod. Then they tell you that you "dont understand", that you are "denying yourself", or worst of all, ignoring the "god shaped hole in your heart".

Atheists dont get the moral high ground on this issue, both sides look down on the other wishing they could "just let themselves understand" but it's a little soul crushing for a child to have their perspective dismissed out of hand. If a child disagrees with your beliefs, you need to be ready to discuss them openly and honestly - and that includes accepting that you may be wrong on some if not all of your positions.

In my adult life I have been very lucky in making friends who not only accept my lack of faith, but also have a sense of humility about their own.

Today atheism has become part fo the mainstream debate, I started this blog because I wanted to add another voice to the groundswell of rationalists. At leasts when an adult expresses their faith to a child today I would hope they could do so rationally and consistently, something that was sadly lacking when I was a child.

Friday, 28 September 2012

The bible is a finite state machine.

The other day I was watching the movie "Collision" featuring debates between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson (watch it, it's awesome).

One of the topics debated was that of morality.

Most arguments or debates on morality between christians and atheists come down to the question of where morality comes from.

In the debate, the christians claim was that god is the source of objective morality and that such morality is communicated through the bible.

The idea of an objective morality is hard to support, because each human is (by definition) their own subject, and any objective morality interpreted by a subjective human must result in a subjective application.

Objective + Subjective = Subjective

This is not to say that the result of an objective moral judgment and subjective moral judgement must necessarily be different. However the deistic purity of the objective morality claimed by christians is subject to subjective distortion via the many and varied humans performing the interpretation.

The atheists claim in the debate was that morality is innate, either as a result of evolutionary imperatives or from an intellectual basis (such as enlightened self interest).

(please excuse my gross simplification of the arguments for the purposes of this post)

I'm going to avoid a deep discussion of the sources for human morality for another (much longer) post.

What neither side seemed to raise in the debates, was the limitations of the bible as a tool for determining morality. Specifically that the bible is a finite state machine.

By finite state machine, I mean that there are a limited number of parables, morality plays and direct behavioural edicts in the bible, all of which were written between 1.8 and 3.5 thousand years ago.

So it would be reasonable (read necessary) to expect that not every possible modern question of morality is dealt with in those pages.

Therefore in such situations where a clear and definitive moral ruling is not supplied, or where multiple conflicting moral laws seem to apply, christians must use their best judgment to determine how to interpret the bible.

Best judgement using their intellect and innate morality, any such interpretation made by a christian must eventually rely on those faculties.

Thus the arbiter of any moral ambiguity in the bible for a christian is same as the starting morality for an atheist.

I'm not saying that there is no morality in the bible - I think the bible contains great morality as well as great immorality. What I am saying is that human morality is useful without the bible but the bible is not useful without human morality. The same can be said of any finite text claiming to be the laws of god. In the end all moral decisions are human ones.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Islam is not peace, even if most muslims are peaceful

A few days ago the web buzzed with a video by Abeer Ali showcasing reactions from the Middle East to the recent events shown in the media.

The video goes a long way to demonstrate that the vast number if Islamist are moderate not the fringe lunatics who campaign and complain whenever anyone expresses a non positive view about muslims.

I like the video, the people in it are intelligent, rational, non violent, and tolerant. However it ends on a note I feel compelled to challenge. A full minute of the 8 and half minute long video is a montage of people saying "Islam is peace".

No. Wrong. Sorry, and repeating it does not make it less wrong.

Islam is not peace... at best you could say "Islam values peace" but Islam is first and foremost  a religion, a monotheistic, abrahamic faith embodied in a text called the Qur'an (or Koran). This text is considered by it's adherents to be the direct, inerrant, unchangeable, verbatim word of god.

Depending who you ask and how how you interpret them there are about 100 verses in the qur'an that call for violence against those who are not muslim, refuse to convert, or actually convert away from Islam - some of them are pretty graphic. And even worse, unlike the genocidal parts of the old testament in the bible, verses in the qur'an demanding death for non-muslims are often open ended and exist outside of a specific historical context.

Even if you cut it down to just the ones that specifically call for muslims to inflict harm directly rather than claim god will do it, there are still dozens, for example:
So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captives and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. Qur'an 9:5
Convert or die - pretty unambiguous.

This does not mean of course that all muslims are dangerous fanatic lunatics - far from it, moderate muslims are, as the video shows, a peaceful and friendly people. But that is their current culture, their religion is something different, based on the central concept that Muhammad was the last prophet god would ever send and that the qur'an is the inerrant laws of god that were given directly to him.

The fact that so many muslims are peaceful is a tribute to the people not the book. The humans beings who choose to focus on the parts of their religious text that teach compassion, tolerance, and understanding deserve all the credit and all the applause for this. They stand testament to the ability of human to make good choices and determine for themselves what laws (from god or otherwise) that are truly moral.

Factions exist that read the qur'an and see justifications in killing and enforcing the rule of Islam. Movements like the taliban used strict interpretation of the qur'an to create a state of extreme human rights abuses. This shows that the qur'an and Islam are not guarantees of peace.

The qur'an is complex, it is beautiful and inspiring as well as harsh and brutal. Like any book it should be read and understood and not feared or revered. It has parts that should be lauded and parts that should be shunned - but it's status as the word of god makes such rational evaluation and analysis impossible for adherents.

Islam is not peace.

Islam is a faith in crisis (like many others), with moderate humanist morals at direct odds with commands from god that current muslims must choose to ignore or re-interpret if they wish their faith to co-exist with their conscience.

Faith is the tool of a child

In a child, faith in a teacher makes learning easier and means very complex ideas and actions can be taught at a very young age. In an adult, however, blind faith is not a virtue and serves no purpose but the perpetuation of ideas and practices that fail any critical evaluation.

A few years back I saw a particular research study on comparative intelligence in human children and young chimps.

Both groups were shown a puzzle box, and both groups were taught a sequence of actions tapping the box and pocking at it with a stick, pushing and pulling rods etc, all resulting in opening a draw and finding a treat.

Nothing terribly interesting so far, both groups learn the sequence without difficulty and sit at the box repeating it to get treat after treat.

The difference occurs when the box is made transparent and its internal working can be seen.

It turns out that most if not all of the actions do nothing.

Chimps immediately notice this and abandon all the irrelevant steps while human children still imitate the original pattern (you can find the original scientific article in pdf here.)

Whats the difference?

The children are acting on faith, continuing to do things they don't have any true empirical evidence to support and that appear irrelevant because that's the way they were shown it.

The children are expecting to be taught so they accept things without understanding them. This allows humans to communicate complex ideas without explaining all the granular details of them. basically it makes it possible to say to a child "Do it this way now, you'll understand why later".

This study made perfect sense to me the first time I heard of it. As humans our ability to take things on faith makes it easier for adults to teach children, but as adults we gain the ability to choose when and how often to suspend our critical faculties.

So when someone shows us how to prepare a particular type of meal or fix a particular mechanical device we follow their actions in detail the first few times, and when we are more comfortable that we understand the mechanisms and implications involved we can experiment with modifying the procedure.

As one of my teachers used to say: "You have to really understand the rules before you can break them..."

Popular religions don't work like that. You start by being told to take it all on faith but you never get to graduate up to the point when your critical faculties get to come into play.

Faith might be a great tool for a child learning about the world who follows what they are told because they assume the teacher has some knowledge still to be imparted, but for an adult to follow on faith alone especially when the one leading them lacks any more knowledge or understanding than they do themselves is simply an example of intellectual retardation.

Religionists often feel insulted when atheists make direct comparisons between elements of faith like God and elements of fable like Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy. However they are all examples of an idea taken on faith until we mature enough to no longer need the idea.

Few children continue to believe in the Tooth fairy until the last of their baby teeth are gone, long before that they realise that a missing tooth means a new and better tooth is on the way so they no longer need the fantasy and bribe.

Why is it then, that many religionists never stop to think that people are mature enough to think for themselves - to establish and understand a self determined morality rather than an artificially imposed one.

If people followed a code of morality they chose and understood perhaps they would not need the promise of reward or punishment that so many religions seem to rely on.

Heaven or Hell
Candy or Coal
The carrot or the stick

Even the bible recognises there is a time for maturity to take over. A time for adults to make, and understand their own choices:
1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

How much longer will childish faith hold sway over so many intelligent adults?