Monday, April 12, 2010

Angels & Demons

It's been a little while, but I have been giving some thought to the nature of good and evil and how it relates to being Athiest. William Shakespeare, in Love's Labour Lost, wrote that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", and in Hamlet stated "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so". I think both phrases amply reflect the proposition that "good" and "evil" are human constructs and not, as those of the Abrahamic monothiestic faiths would assert, actual forces that actively influence in our lives.

So, what does that mean? Do Athiests believe that there is no such thing as good and evil? Of course not! Too many times Athiesim is lumped in with Anarchism and those who rail against the Athiest will attribute the stereotypically worst attributes of Anarchism to buoy up their arguements. This does not reflect the mores or mindset of the Athiest. Athiests can be good or evil in exactly the same ways that the devout can be ... the difference is that the Athiest knows that the fault or virtue of an action resides within their own character and that they, and they alone, are responsible for their actions.

So, you might ask yourself how an Athiest can judge what is good and evil? The answer, ironically enough, is to stand of the shoulders of our ancestors and their ancestors past. Contrary to what those who believe would like to portray, humanity created for itself a social code long before we created God. Without that evolutionary development toward socialization our species probably would not have attained it's place as "the paragon of animals". The Thiests would argue that the laws come from God, as told in the fable of Moses and the 10 Commandments and the other writings in the Bible. Believe it or not, most of the laws that we have in modern society can actually draw a valid and valuable notion that is set out in these basic laws ... as long as you jettison the first three on the list, and extract only what is valid from the fourth commandment.

The first three commandments have but a single message: A powerful force must control our lives so don't piss it off. At this time in our evolution we had moved from small hunter/gatherer social groups into larger, and more complex social groups. We had also begun to evolve our understanding of the world, of rudimentary engineering, mathematics, animal husbandry and agriculture and the hundreds of other arts and sciences that we, to this day and beyond, continue to develop to make our lives better. For all the progress made in those days we still had no understanding of those things that we know now so we sought to rationalize them through varying "divine" constructs and explainations. Over time, these constructs became less about explaining our world and more about controlling it. If a powerful force controls the seasons, and the lightning & storms, the crops and all the beasts of nature ... then why can't we borrow some of that power to our own ends? Thus, was religion created, and moreso the ability to enforce "The Rules".

Now, the fourth commandment has a religious command, but within it is the first indication of what could loosely be called common sense: keeping the sabbath day holy and not working on the sabbath. Pure and simple this is a survival imperative ... being tired reduces your chances of survival. We can see the value of this in everything from taking a vacation to watching lions snooze on the plains of the Serengeti.

The fifth through tenth commandments that serve as the basis of Abrahamic law are purely a construct of social evolution. Where the survival of pack, or social groups, is in question the ability to act in mutual self interest greatly increased the chances of survival for the whole group. The more that members of a social group could adhere to those six social mores, the greater the chance of survival for all the members of the group. Simply put, the social contract relies on recipocricy ... the ability to give to a common good to receive the benefit of that good. Any pack member who could not adhere to those social codes would find they also could not receive the benefits derived from that adhereance.

So, does good and evil exist? Yes ... and No.

Good and Evil are not, as the Thiestically inclined would have us believe, tangable forces that are manipulated by dieties unknowable to us to achieve their ends. Simply put, Good and Evil are measured by the extent that a person, or group, is willing to go to meet their needs or the needs of others. Evil can be personified in the drive that ... say, Hitler, employed to acheive his personal need for power. Countless millions lost their lives, their families, or their freedoms because he was able to marshal the forces of like minded people to pursue his ends. Goodness can be personified in the desire to serve others in need ... best exemplified by Mother Theresa of Calcutta who, despite the revealed troubles she had with her faith in her god, selflessly gave of herself to ease the desperate need and suffering of those she lived with.

A question that the Atheist might ask themself would be "Is there an absolute good and an absolute evil?" Personally, I don't think so. But, now you ask yourself "Well, what about people like Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Hitler on the one side and Mother Theresa, the Dali Llama, and others like them on the other side?" Don't they qualify as absolutes of good and evil? ... Nope.

Good and Evil are where you find selflessness and selfishness. Good is not the sole province of the faithful just as evil is not the sole criteria for the faithless. Life has to be a balance between those things. For example, being employed is a necessary evil because it allows us to obtain the benefits that allow for the comforts we enjoy. Technology is a necessary evil because it allows us the comforts we enjoy, but the cost sometimes comes in the form of pollution, social inequality, and even death and dismemberment.

The biggest problem I see with Good and Evil, and the absolutes that are used to define those states by the faithful, is the notions of Salvation and Damnation. Topics of which we will discuss soon.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Oh, for the love of God ...

The most poignant thing I ever saw on a bumper sticker was one that read: "God, save me from your followers"

How does one find a good expression of faith? One can usually cite the untold thousands of good and charitable works performed by groups affiliated with various and sundry religious groups. By extension, you can usually laud those individuals who donate of their time and wealth to support such groups. But, are any of those expressions that I have mentioned really good?

"What the hell are you talking about?" ... you may ask yourself. How can a charitable act be a bad thing? Well, I know this may seem odd, but it seems to me that those acts of charity don't really qualify as charity because of what motivates that charity. Those that give charitably as an act of faith would appear to doing a good thing. They provide the benefit of their expertise, their wealth, or even simply of their time to aid those who's needs for said benefits is both great and immediate. But I just don't think it is charity.

Charity, at least in my mind, is something that you do with no expectation or reward or recompense. So, is it just me or does this not hold true for faith based charities? Depending on the manner and variety of your faith, charity at the least fulfills a requirement of the deity of that faith or earns a reward from said deity. The flip side of the argument would seem to be that those in receipt of charity would logically be those in need of charity. In many circumstances the recipients of charity are asked to either participate in some religious expression or are encouraged to join in the community that embraces said faith. Now, don't get me wrong, but if you expect something beyond gratitude from the recipient of charity it seems less like charity and more like employment.

Another thing that bothers me is that these churches are considered charities themselves. These charities rely on the donations of their adherents in order to propagate their message. Again, it seems to me that anyone who pays to propagate their message are not doing charitable works, it seems to me they are advertising a product. If you were to look at it from an outsider's perspective, you would wonder why the churches don't pay taxes and the psychics do.

There is an even more worrying and questionable practice that seems to be taken to the Nth degree in certain christian sects ... the practice of prosperity theology. This dubious espression of faith implies that the rewards for giving to support your faith are not rewarded in the afterlife, rather they are provided in the earthly realm we currently occupy. Various christian preachers like Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson have used this tactic to encourage their followers to support their church's activities. One preacher, Robert Tilton, famously employed this tactic to raise millions of dollars to support his ministry before coming to the interested notice of several US Attorney's General. Even the most unbiased viewing of the peccadillos of the various and sundry abuses of the charitable nature of the followers of these individual ministries. Not wanting this to sound like an editorial, but the charity of this escapes me.

There are charities out there that work in a religious vein that seem to have been able to be charities in the proper sense of the word, I am thinking specifically of the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies. Both groups work within the respective frameworks of their faith, but offer their assistance regardless of the recipient's faith.

To the atheist, charity is simply charity. The atheist does not seek God's approval or endorsement, nor do they require an expression of faith or gratitude to their deity. To the atheist the reward of charity is simple, and primal ... the reward is knowing that you have helped. Where the faithful seek meaning through expressions of their faith, the atheist find meaning in the simple knowledge that their effort, whether large or small, eased someone's distress. Why does this hold more truth than that faith offers? Because the atheist understands that we are social animals, and this social instinct, more highly evolved than in our primate cousins, is not an imperative imposed on us by a god. It is what and where our evolution as a species brought us to be. Charity is the best expression of ourselves that, if nurtured and cared for properly, will grow to offset the worst, most venial parts of our collective psyche.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Zeus, by Jove

Time for another random stream of thought regarding the problem with religion.

The Abrahamic religions call themselves by various names but I will, for the sake of simplicity, sometimes borrow the nomenclature of of Islam and refer to them as "the people of the book". Judaism's faith seeks the coming of the Messiah. Christianity asserts that the person known as Jesus (or Joshua bar Joseph) as the Messiah and the son of God. Islam holds that Jesus is a revered prophet, but lesser in stature to Mohammad.

As I understand it, and as always I claim no special knowledge or training in theology or history, this monotheistic faith is somewhat unique to the historical region from where it arose. When you look at the other major civilizations in the region; the Romans, the Greeks, and the Egyptians ... these were all polytheistic societies. To steal a humourous line, they had "... gods by the bushel, gods by the pound, gods for every occasion". These various pantheons all seemed to have their equivalencies. For example the Greeks had Zeus, the Romans had Jove, the Egyptians had Horus ... even the Norse had Odin and the Hindi had Vishnu. All these beliefs had these specialized Gods that had dominion over specific aspects of life & death, harvest and the seasons, and various other aspects of mortal endeavours. The thing is that all these gods were not worshiped equally. Zeus/Jove was considered the father of their pantheon of gods, but depending on the vocation and social station, people would choose among those pantheons to worship the gods they felt would give them the greatest advantage in their everyday lives. The other thing I found interesting is that in each of the aforementioned cultures they may not have worshiped the other deities, and they may not have even acknowleged those other gods as being even remotely equal to their own, there was little or no animosity directed against those who worshiped these "foreign" gods.

Now, what gets me is that these ancient civilizations were more metropolitan and sophisticated than our current culture seems to be in regards to religious faith and practice. It seems to be that depending on the tenets you choose to follow and the level of investiture you have in the practice of that faith, believers in the Abrahamic faiths run the gamut from believing that those who do not share and practice their faith will suffer from as little as exclusion from Heaven to the threat of eternal damnation.

The other thing I find interesting is that, with the limited exception of Judaism, these monotheistic faiths place a heavy emphasis on proselytization, or conversion to their system of belief. Again, as with all things, it is the intensity of the belief and/or adherence of the individual to that faith that dictates the language they will use with those outside of that faith. Various statements used to describe unbelievers have included things as innocuous as "not knowing the true majesty of god's creation" to either deserving of death or extreme punishment for their unbelief. I have also notice that all these faiths firmly believe that they, and they alone will have dominion over the world once they have fulfilled the requirements of their god.

In my opinion (and yes, I am aware that opinions are like ... well, you know) once you strip away the history, philosophy, social and class elements you are left with this bare nugget of truth: My God is bigger than your God. The question I ponder in this is how can this vast, unknowable entity be capable of creating the infinite diversity of our limited understanding of the universe, and still be such a petty, controlling and insecure individual?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Troubling Thoughts about Godhood

Is the world better off without religion? Personally, I think that we are going to be better off once we can successfully evolve past our need for our "invisible friend" who makes the world make sense to us.

Now, before I go off on a tangent here, I do want to say that religion isn't completely useless ... just outdated. I personally think that religion served a purpose to our primitive societies by creating a threat against bad behaviour that was both greater, and unknowable, than the people who attempted to impose this order on those proto-societies. And, lets face it, it works just as well now as it did thousands of years ago because the tools employed now are exactly the same as they had back then. God, or the gods, reward obedience and punish defiance. This was an easy sell in those early days when the unknown and our reaction to it was a mainstay of our survival instinct. Lets face it, the unknown is dangerous and way back then it was also deadly.

So, what does any of this have to do with anything? Hard to say. You see, I just find it frustrating to know that as a species we have we have managed to develop from rudimentary tool use and animal husbandry to where we have managed to harness the power of the atom and make our first uncertain steps into space ... and still we are saddled with these superstitions.

From an outsider's point of view religion is a perplexing mystery, and christianity even more so. Actually, all of the Abrahamic faiths perplex me because they draw on the same source of tribal stories and yet seem to make radically different conclusions. Oddly, the conclusions they reach are not different, they are the same ... that their god will justify their faith and their efforts and reward them for their obedience. On the face of it, the old joke of "my god is bigger than your god" is being played out every day here on our odd little world with each group claiming with absolute certainty that they are the chosen of their particular mythological entity. I think a real paradox exists when you can claim the certainty of such an entity's objectives in one breath, and then make a statement like "god works in mysterious ways" in the next.

I was thinking the other day that christianity is a cruel faith. Not because of it's history and practices (which do nothing to enhance the reputation of christianity as a whole) but because of the basic notion of their faith. The old testament tells tales of a jealous and cruel god who supported slavery, murder, genocide, incest, and a plethora of other less than desirable practices. This collection of stories is shared both with judiasm and islam so for all three faiths the basis of those faiths have grown out of a system where these practices are condoned. Now, is it just me or is the basic thing that can be taken away from those tales is that god is a jealous egomaniac who will kill you for ignoring him?

If you hadn't noticed by now, this is kinda going on a stream of consciousness tack. I don't have any answers, I don't know that there are any answers. I am going to blather on from time to time about this because I hope to understand why we still need the idea of a divinity in our lives anymore.

More to come ...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Introduction to a messy mind

I feel like I have to rant. I am frustrated with people, with life, but mostly with religion. This will seem an ignorant and/or arrogant statement, but I plan to state the things I think using the same criteria that the Religious Right uses. Simply put, they use the Bible to support their arguements and my arguements will be equally fact free. I don't know that anyone will read these rants, and I am pretty certain that I don't care if they are accepted poorly or enthusiastically.

A little about myself. I am 45 (soon, entirely too soon), I think I am both a know-it-all and a know nothing at the same time. My only redeeming quality is that I try. So, this exercise is to see if I can try to make sense of what rattles around in my brain vis-a-vis religion, faith, logic, illogic and whatever the hell else crawls in between my ears and takes an annoying little dump.

Buckle up, this isn't going to be pretty.