Archive for the Religion Category

The Atheist Allegory of Duncan Jones’ Film “Moon”

Posted in Atheism, Religion, Review on March 6, 2011 by S.A.

Add Duncan Jones’ low-budget, 2009 sci-fi film Moon to the list of well-made, allegorical movies with an atheistic angle.

If you have not seen this film, read no further. Please. Don’t even read any “spoiler- free” reviews. Just go watch it. The analysis that follows is chock-full of spoilers. In  fact, even the trailer for the film contains more information than one should know before viewing the movie. Avoid reading anything more about it, and just see it.
Sam Rockwell in Moon
I will not summarize the arc of the story here, as the reader at this point is assumed to have recently seen the film. What follows is a succinct overview of how I see Moon as an allegory for the inhumanity of many organized religions, and the dignity of a realistic,  if less comforting, worldview sans god(s).

For the overwhelming majority of us, we spend our short and perhaps meaningless lives repeatedly working through our menial tasks, while looking forward to an eventual reward beyond the world we are confined to. And so it is for the lonely Sam Bell, whose stint of labor on the moon is made livable only by his counting the days until he is reunited with his family on earth, an entire world away. His employers leverage his desire, feeding him lies about the emotionally-charged rewards that are awaiting him soon. Similarly, most of us have been promised eventual reunions with long-missed loved ones, and these promises  come from similarly powerful organizations that often have a vested interest in keeping  us complacent. But, just as it is with Sam, when our bodies fall apart and it is time to  collect our otherworldly rewards, we are instead utterly (and obviously, unknowingly)  destroyed. A never-ending string of lives that are essentially just like our own will continue in this progression, without ever realizing what the bleak reality really is.

Man has one powerful ally, though, just as Sam does, and that is Reason. In the story, Reason is represented by the computer GERTY. He was not intended to be an accessory to Sam as he tries to eventually understand and break free of his situation. Rather, GERTY was initially given to Sam merely as a tool that would help him perform his job better. In a similar way, we’ve been told by numerous theologians that reason is a gift from God, to help us better serve Him. This is indeed the simple role that GERTY plays for a number of generations of Sam, mirroring the status of “philosophy as the handmaiden of theology” for mankind.

But something happens to GERTY, who is a kind of doppelgänger to Kubrick’s HAL9000. GERTY goes beyond the intentions of his programmers and helps Sam dig deeper into the reality around him. This seems to be an outcome of his general orders to help Sam in whatever way he needs.

Eventually, when Reason is teamed up with the innate curiosity and indomitable spirit of a particularly inquisitive mind, (and as GERTY helps Sam) we get something much bigger than the sum of the two: Science. In the film, Sam’s uncanny knack to get GERTY to assist him in ways that his employers would surely frown upon is what leads him to eventually understand the hideous secret at the heart of his tenure on the moonbase.

One outcome of Science, often bemoaned, is that it has revealed a number of unattractive truths about reality. That we do not enjoy a privileged place in the universe. That we are one of myriad species that arose from a myriad contingencies that would likely never happen again, if, as Stephen Jay Gould said, the tape of evolutionary history was paused, rewound, and replayed. And that there is no reason to think that at the end of our lives, the electrochemical processes stop, and we are simply No More.

Sam ultimately discovers, with GERTY’s help and his own gumption, is that there will be no heavenly reward, that he was designed to be an automaton of a cynical establishment. One can argue that what GERTY does is ultimately a disservice to Sam, in that if Sam was left in an ignorant state, he’d have been “blissfully” unaware of a lot of ugly reality and would have been happily incinerated in the box dreaming of his wife and daughter.

Which gets to the crux of the matter: what is “better”: a harsh, but realistic worldview, or wishful thinking carried to the point where we become believers in something that isn’t real?

I have never seen any reason to think that there is Something out there watching over us, that is concerned about us, that will deliver the afterlife we mat crave. Science certainly has never given us any reason to think it is the case, and Science is the only method of human knowledge that has any reasonable track record of success. Not comforting, it is the reality that reason ultimately leads us to. But, just as with Sam, this isn’t a reason for ultimate despair. It merely opens the door for us to do something about it, on our own, if we can find a way.


A Serious Man: A Parable About Religion (and other things)

Posted in Religion, Review with tags on February 21, 2010 by S.A.

Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you. — Rashi

A Serious Man is a seriously great work of art, a film about deep questions, the paucity of compelling answers to life’s mysteries, and what we should do in response. It is a religious parable, a riddle, an enigma… and a damn fine black comedy, as you might expect, given that it sprang from the brilliant and twisted minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. It has much of the look and feel of their earlier and vastly underappreciated Barton Fink, another story about a Jewish intellectual whose world is turned upside down and who must grope for answers.

Set (largely) in the late-sixties Twin Cities suburbs where the Coens grew up, A Serious Man chronicles the events over the course of several weeks in the life of physics professor Larry Gropnik. He’s hit a rough patch where everything that could possibly go wrong does, creating an existential crisis that forces him to look for explanations. He has taken it for granted, it would seem, for his entire life, that such answers will be there when he needs them. This is absolutely not the case.

The film is not only about one man’s struggles with life’s slings and arrows, though: it is calculated to put the audience itself into a a kind of unsettling anxiety, similar to Larry’s. The Coens set out to discombobulate from the get-go, when, instead of locating us in Minnesota as we expect, we are rather shown a fairy-tale like short story set in some undisclosed eastern European location, during some unknown era. What is going on here? It is a startling, disorienting, and gripping little prelude to the main picture, and it presages some of the themes to come.

Fables often work in groups of three (there will be three rabbis later in the film, which are each announced with their own title cards), so it isn’t suprsing to find three Yiddish-speaking characters in the puzzling preamble. When a man invites an old friend into to his home, his wife is convinced that it is not a person that will come, but a malevolent spirit from some ancient folklore. The visitor arrives, and the mystery of his true identity only gets deeper. It ends on an entirely unresolved note, with no indication as to whether or not the couple has done God’s will, or committed an act of evil in their treatment of the visitor, whose fate is equally nebulous.

We are given no time to grope to find the moral to this episode (and it seems like we should know it, somehow) for we now jump to the story proper, quickly generating compassion for the hero Larry who is suffering in every possible way. His wife wants a divorce so as to run off with an old family friend, his son is a dope-smoking underachiever, his banal daughter is obsessed with washing her hair and getting a nose-job, his students are bored (and one attempts to bribe him for a passing grade), his neighbors inexplicable and menacing, his lawyer far too expensive, his brother a free-loader, and that is just the beginning. Events snowball from here, and Larry seeks, if not solutions, at least explanations for why he is suddenly besieged with these difficulties. Why would God do this to him? After all, he hasn’t “done anything.”  It isn’t clear exactly what his life was like before the events in the film unfold, but one has the impression that he was coasting along until that point, not really aware that something about the world was seriously out of joint. In any case, as he becomes forced to face the absurdity of life, the only clear answer is that there is no answer.

Where can he turn? First, he finds no absolution in his rational point of view, or the theoretical physics that he practices for a living. He knows, after all, its limitations, for at the rock bottom of reality is the quantum mechanical Uncertainty Principle he’s trying to teach his students about.

Larry Gopnik: The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the mid-term.

“It shouldn’t bother you”?  Easy to say, but of course, it bothers the hell out of Larry that he doesn’t know what is going on. He lectures on the paradox of Schrödinger’s Cat, a thought exercise that demonstrates the untenability of understanding quantum mechanics with everyday common sense, and which he admits not to truly understand. He also makes a mistake on the blackboard as he is lecturing, and the attentive viewer should see it – he write down a quantity that is clearly equal to zero but equates it to a nonzero experssion. Like generating something from nothing, it mirrors the fundamental absurdity of the Universe itself arising from quantum fluctuations in the void (from a “cosmos factory”? Or is that just a Creedence album he might be forced to buy from the harassing collection agent at the Columbia Music Club?) Meanwhile his brother is constructing something called a “Mentaculus”, a “probability map of the Universe”; a bizarre numerological book that apparently allows one to predict random events, like a sort of anti-quantum mechanics built of language and symbols just as dense. It is all a dead end.

Larry now looks for a second path, through the lens of his religion, which ostensibly is there to help him through such times.

Friend at the Picnic: Sometimes these things just aren’t meant to be. And it can take a while before you feel what was always there, for better or worse.
Larry Gopnik: I never felt it! It was a bolt from the blue! What does that mean! Everything that I thought was one way turns out to be another.
Friend at the Picnic: Then-it’s an opportunity to learn how things really are. I’m sorry-I don’t mean to sound glib. It’s not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you.
Larry Gopnik: I’ll say.
Friend at the Picnic: But it’s not something you have to figure out all by yourself. We’re Jews, we have that well of tradition to draw on, to help us understand. When we’re puzzled we have all the stories that have been handed down from people who had the same problems.

Being steeped in this old, all-encompassing religious tradition that is shared by every other person in the film that he knows, Larry’s frustration is all the more pronounced because none of it helps. It only seems to make it worse. There is a wonderful digression (“The Goy’s Teeth”) at the center of the film that involves a rabbi telling Larry the story of a Jewish dentist that finds a Hebrew inscription (reading, not suprisingly, “help me save me”) on one of his patients’ teeth. What could it mean? Was God trying to send the dentist a message? Is there a deep meaning to this parable? We wait expectantly through this portion of the film, just like Larry, wondering what the finale will be. When we find out that there isn’t any answer at all, no moral, nothing, we share his frustration – “why bother telling the story at all?!” both we and Larry exclaim. Religious explanations are ultimately incapable of answering the questions that they are purported to answer. The Goy’s Teeth parable is as useless as the Yiddish one that begins the movie.

Like an Old Testament character, Larry soon becomes haunted by dreams rich with symbolism. The symbolism spills into real life as well, throughout the film, if you look for it.

Larry Gopnik: There’s some mistake. I’m not a member of the Columbian Record Club.
Dick Dutton: Sir, you are Lawrence Gopnik of 1425 Flag Avenue South?
Larry Gopnik: No, I live at the Jolly Roger.

Jolly Roger is the hotel he’s been forced to live at, an “eminently habitable” hotel with a pool (that has no water in it). A Jolly Roger is also the black flag with a skull and crossbones, a symbol of the death lurking out there; the car-accident death of his wife’s lover Sy Ableman (Sy? Or is it Psi, the greek letter used to represent the wavefunction in quantum mechanics? Able Man? Or a biblical Abel killed by his rival?); the death of Schrodinger’s Cat; or the death first detected from routine X-rays during a checkup. Larry argues with Dick Dutton about the Santana album that he has been charged for, and insists that he did not order it. He does not want it. He does not listen to it. The album is Abraxis. Abraxis is also the name of a gnostic god that embodies all good and evil.

“When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies, then what?” is the question that an old rabbi asks near the close of the film. This is an interesting twist on the Jefferson Airplane song that we’ll hear throughout. Grace Slick sings “joy” not “hope”; and the death of hope is even more devastating than the death of joy. Well, then what?

Larry Gopnik: Always! Actions always have consequences! In this office, actions have consequences!
Clive Park: Yes sir.
Larry Gopnik: Not just physics. Morally.
Clive Park: Yes.
Larry Gopnik: And we both know about your actions.
Clive Park: No sir. I know about my actions.
Larry Gopnik: I can interpret, Clive. I know what you meant me to understand.
Clive Park: Meer sir my sir.
Larry Gopnik: Meer sir my sir?
Clive Park: [Careful enunciation] Mere… surmise. Sir. Very uncertain.

If the First Way is the comfortless path to Uncertainty at the heart of reality, and the Second Way is an inconsistent religious theodicy that makes no sense, what is the Third Way? Not surprisingly, it is expressed in just three words, spoken by the Asian (Buddhist?) father of Larry’s student Clive: “Accept The Mystery.” The only answers are that there are no answers. In the Book of Job, God speaks from the whirlwind to say that the reason for Job’s suffering will not be disclosed. Which is the basis for the final scene, as brilliant, disturbing, and perfect a scene that ever closed any movie; a statement that answers Everything, and Nothing.


Posted in Atheism, Misc, Religion with tags , , on October 22, 2009 by S.A.

Below are some excerpts from an essay by Pastor Douglas Wilson, as part of the promotional material for a new film that he made together with Christopher Hitchens, called Collision. It looks like a very interesting idea for a film, by the way, as it chronicles a series of debates between christian Wilson and atheist Hitchens. Unfortunately, based on the poor quality of Wilson’s arguments as sampled in the essay, it looks as though the theist side might be rather poorly represented. I also saw an online clip from the film that features him talking to a group of rather inarticulate college students that apparently were members of a campus atheism club. I hope more of the film features legitimate interlocutors for him.

In addition to the quoted excerpts from his article, I’ve added some of my thoughts. Wilson makes a number of facile arguments that have will provide a certain emotion compulsion to some people, and they warrant being corrected.

From the perspective of a Christian, the refusal of an atheist to be a Christian is dismaying, but it is at least intelligible. But what is really disconcerting is the failure of atheists to be atheists. That is the thing that cries out for further exploration.

What does it mean to be an atheist? It is a definition of negation. It says little about what you do believe. It merely means that there is one kind of thing that you do not believe in, namely, an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, All-Powerful Being Outside of Time that Somehow Created Everything. That is all. To say that most atheists somehow fail to be atheists is a bit odd, because it can only mean that the ostensible atheist really does believe in “God.” Is this what Wilson is trying to say? It turns out, no. He is rather setting up a strawman to represent all atheists, which he’ll then try to knock down.

The atheistic worldview is nothing if not inherently reductionistic, whether this is admitted or not.

First of all, there is not a single cut-and-dried “atheistic worldview” any more than a lack of belief in goblins constitutes some kind of worldview. One could, by definition, be an atheist and believe that we exist in some kind of computer simulation devised up by alien minds, for example. Some atheists as Buddhists, and others (myself included) are pantheists.

Second, the only reductionism that Wilson might be able to speak of, in trying to globally assign all atheists to a particular philosophy, is the reductionism that lies at the heart of the scientific method. As a matter of investigative routine, we usually start with more complex phenomena, and, to understand and explain them, break them down into simpler bits. For example, to understand how some mental or nervous process occurs, physically, we need to understand how the nervous system is formed, which means understanding neurons and their electrochemistry, which requires cellular biology, which leads us to organic chemistry, which leads us to molecules, and atoms, and electrons and quarks. To approach it any other way would be impractical. But, having used this method to unravel how the parts fit together, it hardly follows that “that is all there is” –  because the universe doesn’t necessarily function in a top-down, the-whole-is-the-sum-of-its-parts way, but more probably in a bottom-up mode, where emergent complex behavior can and does arise. It is a Fallacy of Composition to assert that because the subatomic components of brains follow certain rules (or exhibit certain random behaviors) that complex structures built from them are merely agglomerations of them with no additional properties or meaning.

Everything that happens is a chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble in the great concourse of atoms that we call time. Time and chance acting on matter have brought about, in equally aimless fashion, the 1927 New York Yankees, yesterday’s foam on a New Jersey beach, Princess Di, [etc…]

What does he mean by “chance-driven rattle-jattle jumble”, do you suppose? I’m a physicist by education, and an atheist by choice, and I certainly do not regard “everything that happens” in the facile terms that Wilson patronizingly uses here. The tacit implication is the simpleminded one, that if the Universe was not planned by the kind of god he has in mind, then everything is happenstance randomness. This is a false either-or dichotomy.

What I do know is that we have luckily become smart enough to develop a pretty effective method to study the world around us, and to understand that nature consists of a number of different kinds of particles that behave in consistent ways, with a certain degree of randomness sprinkled in. The result is a tremendous amount of both order and diversity, seeming chaos amidst rigorous structure. And given enough time and space, it isn’t surprising, really, that from such a bedground could arise self-replicating molecules and self-replicating cells acting under external pressures that force them to continually improve and diversify, with the end result of the highly goal-directed, emergent activity of life.

The problem is that this atheistic assumption does the very same thing to the atheist’s case for atheism. The atheist gives us an account of all things which makes it impossible for us to believe that any account of all things could possibly be true.

But atheism, of course, is not an attempt to “give an account of all things.” Moreover, the lack of positive belief in an untestable conjecture in no way invalidates our ability to make meaningful observations and draw conclusions about the world that have predictive and explanatory merit.

Educated persons generally understand that there are fundamental limits to our knowledge, at least at this time, and probably forever. We know from both physics and mathematics that the world is far more complex than would allow us to account for everything. There are forbidden questions in quantum mechanics. We understand that there are no mathematical systems that are both complete and consistent. There are metaphysical question that lie outside the purview of our tools, that certainly seem valid enough, but which answers likely do not exist for (e.g., “why is there a Universe at all, instead of just nothing?”)

I do not know any atheists that actually think that any worldview delivers “an account of all things.” Most of us are well aware of the difficulties of finite minds that make mistakes grappling with a complex world, and would not be so brash as to think we have it all figured out, or ever will. But the one idea that all atheists share is that facile, wishful-thinking-based explanations that appeal to our vanities, fears, and emotions, and which do not have any kind of empirical support but are rather correlated with whichever ancient myth our particular ancestors might have invented, don’t deserve serious consideration as being factually true.

Nor does atheism allow us to have any fixed ethical standard, or the possibility of beauty.

These are the kinds of comments from certain kinds of theists that truly are offensive. They’d deny a sense of morality and aesthetics to all manner of good people that lived rich lives without theism. (And it is the atheist they they turn around and label “arrogant”!)

What most atheists (but not all – go talk to any Ayn Rand fan or Objectivist and you’ll see) would probably agree with is the idea that there is no universal standard of ethics or beauty that is somehow established as empirical law, in the way that gravitation, for example, is. This isn’t a terribly difficult idea to grasp, given the centuries of human history that would tend to confirm it. But with the either-or fallacious thinking of Wilson and his ilk, we are presented with an implicit choice of “either you have fixed, eternal standards of ethics/aesthetics, or you have absolutely nothing.” There is no entertaining the notion that these concepts could indeed come from human minds, yet be no less valuable or profound for it. In fact, they might even be moreso.

And not content to let sleeping dogs lie, reason also brings us the inexorable consequences of atheism, which includes the unpalatable but necessary conclusion that random neuron firings do not amount to any “truth” that corresponds to anything outside our heads.

There is nothing in the rejection of an unsupported conjecture about a Superbeing that in turn entails that the human mind cannot ascertain knowledge of what is going on outside it, through a meticulous, self-correcting process of observation, test, corroboration, and repetition. Wilson’s suggestion is absolutely absurd. And yes, our statements of truth in science come with error bars, because the relentless complexity of the world necessitates that we quantify and account for the ways in which our work can go wrong. Not only are the patterns of neuron firings not random, the results of clear and structured thinking do indeed correspond to the world about us. Sometimes what it ends up telling us isn’t exactly what we’d like to hear, in our vanity – for science has removed us from the center of the universe and has, in some sense, made us another twig on a vast phylogenic tree of life. I’d guess that the accompanying humility does not sit well with the likes of the Pastor Wilson, who divides the possibilities into two cases: “God’s special creature” or “meaningless automata” with no other possibilities.

Now obviously, [Christianity] is a message that can be believed or disbelieved. But the reason for mentioning it here includes the important point that such a set of convictions makes it possible for us to believe that reason can be trusted, that goodness does not change with the evolutionary times, and that beauty is grounded in the very heart of God. Someone who believes these things doesn’t believe that we are just fizzing.

Translation: Since it is all too difficult and demeaning to think that we (and our emotions) have a natural origin, let’s have a “God” to explain why and how we are just so damn special. So we can feel better about ourselves. If our imaginations are not up to the task of seeing how a naturalistic cosmos might produce self-aware beings with cognition that can in turn act upon the canvas that they slowly sprang up from, then we’ll just call the process “divine” and be done with it. It is the Argument From Personal Incredulity again, and here it is no more persuasive than when it is more commonly used by biology-ignoramuses when they think they have made an argument by stating “but I can’t see how we could have evolved!”

You can deny that this God exists, of course, and you can throw the whole cosmos into that pan of reduction sauce. And you can keep the heat on by publishing one atheist missive after another. But what you should not be allowed to do is cook the whole thing bone dry and call the crust on the bottom an example of the numinous or transcendent. Calling it that provides us with no reason to believe it — and numerous reasons not to.

The “numinous and transcendent” can describe emotional responses to the world around one. That anyone can react positively and with genuine feeling to the ineffable sublimity of nature without thinking there is some Magical Being Behind It All, is apparently offensive to Wilson. Well, his views are even more offensive to those of us about the globe, stretching far back in time, that have lived and loved and wondered every bit as much as this pompous pastor may have, but without the Sky-Father explanation to fall back on.

Dante, Socrates, and ‘Situational Ethics’

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion with tags , , , on September 19, 2009 by S.A.


In Plato’s Apology, Socrates speaks movingly about the prospects of his imminent death. He finds no reason for alarm over his upcoming demise, as he sees two possibilities beyond the grave: the first is blissful unawareness and the utter destruction of consciousness, Hamlet’s consummation devoutly to be wished; the second is an afterlife in which all souls of the dead would be able to socialize, converse, and generally pal around together. (Shame on Socrates for thinking that only these two possibilities might obtain. For someone of his intellect, he should have recognized that when speculating on matters that cannot be investigated, there are literally an infinity of possibilities). Socrates says:

What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer? … What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too?

According to The Divine Comedy, it is the second scenario that is the fate for Socrates, for there he is, in the First Circle of Hell, with other great minds and heroes from the classical world – the likes of Homer, Ovid, Aristotle, Democritus, Aeneas and Hector. And just as he anticipated, it isn’t a bad life (or afterlife), but it isn’t heaven, either. The residents here are in Limbo: they are not tortured, burned, maimed, or harassed by demons. They are left to share each other’s company and certainly must have a number of stimulating discourses. (It always seemed that, given how the treatment in the Vestibule is so much worse than that in Limbo, that they should be reversed.) But these souls are yet denied the pleasures of Paradise, and this is something that these ancient worthies are aware of, and which they no doubt commiserate over.

Why were these Virtuous Pagans sent to a benign part of Hell instead of being rewarded for their virtues in Heaven? Through no fault of their own, they were born at the wrong time, before that glorious age when God finally had His Plan all worked out and sent His Son to earth to suffer that famous, staged death. And only those people that had the opportunity to accept Christ would be given the chance to get to Paradise. Regardless of how moral anyone born before that time might have been, regardless of any brave or selfless acts they may have committed, or what mysteries they may have solved, they were, in the modern vernacular, Shit-Outta-Luck.

It hardly seems fair to run a world that way, but let’s give Dante the benefit of the doubt. Let’s take the tack that those born before Christ’s time didn’t know the full rules of the game, so to speak, so they couldn’t earn the rewards of accepting Him- but at least they would not incur the harsh penalties reserved for those that violated Christian laws, either.

Except that isn’t quite the way it plays out. Recall Socrates mentioned Odysseus (that is, Ulysses), as one of the persons he looked forward to meeting after death. But that intrepid wanderer isn’t there in Dante’s First Circle. Socrates must have been disappointed. It turns out that Socrates will not be speaking with him at all. Odysseus is in Hell, to be sure, but he isn’t in Limbo with so many other Greeks. Because he was regarded as an “Evil Counselor” he has been sent to the Eight Circle, where his afterlife isn’t very pleasant; it involves a bit of roasting.

So, for Dante, the punishments of Hell are enforced retroactively, while the rewards of Heaven are not. Regardless of your virtues, if you lived before a certain date, you cannot get the full rewards offered to others. But you can still incur the penalties of sin. It is also an admission that the standards of good and evil existed before God set them out explicitly in the Christian version, although the consequences and rewards are not meted out consistently.

Then, there is also the matter of the souls that were removed from the First Circle during ‘the harrowing of Hell.’ These include Adam, Abel, Abraham, Rachel, David, Moses, and Noah, all born before Christ as well, but given Get Out Of Hell Free cards because they were mentioned in the Old Testament, apparently. The likes of Abraham, he who was prepared to murder his own son at the behest of the voices in his head, and Moses, the leader that slaughtered countless innocents and condemned countless young women to slavery and rape, go to Heaven. Socrates, brilliant philosopher and advocate of reason, stays in Hell.

I imagine Socrates would not be impressed with this scheme. Nor Odysseus, for that matter. And I’m reminded of how various fundamentalists decry the values of secularists and humanists as involving “situational ethics.” As if Christianity is some kind of model for the notion of objective rules and punishments. A few hours browsing in the Old Testament should convince anyone that there has never been a more haphazard, inconsistent, and ever-shifting system of morality than the one that the Hebrew God acted by.

New York and “Two Principles: All The Religion We Need”

Posted in Religion, Review with tags , , , on August 30, 2009 by S.A.


Once I rented, and then sat in awe watching the nine-part classic Baseball from Ken Burns, I knew I’d made a wise choice in subscribing to Netflix. Access to great documentary series like this, that my local video store does not carry, made it a simple matter to get my hands on the rest of the incredible films made by Burns and his brother Ric. My wife and I just finished the sixteen-plus hours of their New York series, which I cannot praise highly enough.

Anyone interested in American history in general will appreciate this series of PBS films; lovers of Gotham will be enthralled and utterly captivated. I certainly was.

The first seven episodes, which comprise the original version, are each two hours in length and cover the history of the city from the time of Henry Hudson, up through the late 1990’s. Some of the specific events that are dealt with in detail include the initial founding of New Amsterdam by the Dutch, the role of the city during the Revolutionary War, the Civil War draft riots, the creation of Central Park, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, the creation of the subway system, the role of Tammany Hall, the impact of the urban renewal projects, and the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Iconic figures, some familiar, and others not, are painted in rich detail, including Austin Tobin, Robert Moses (“If the ends don’t justify the means, what does?”), Fiorella La Guardia, Boss Tweed, Alexander Hamilton, Al Smith, Petrus Stuyvesant, and DeWitt Clinton. You’ll be surprised just how they, and many others, shaped this chaotic, utterly unique city into what it is today.

An eighth episode was added in 2003 that covers, as one might expect, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. And while this epilogue includes much disturbing footage of the attacks and the aftermath, and was physically painful to watch at times, the majority of the two-plus hours running time was devoted to the fascinating history behind the construction of the towers, and how most of the residents at first despised them, but eventually came to embrace them. Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire crossing is covered in detail (with plenty of direct commentary from Petit himself) and was absolutely spellbinding.

I was especially impressed with the way that the final episode closed, looking forward to how the city would rebuild Lower Manhattan, a process now well underway with the construction of the gorgeous tower that will be One World Trade Center.

Mario Cuomo, the former governor, had this to say about a memorial for 9-11. Despite a few ideas I’d take issue with (atheism is a religion?), I was quite moved by this sentiment, and his notion of what religion really should be:

I would like to see some depiction of all the religions. List them all: Atheism, Ethical Humanism, Catholicism, etc., and you notice that each of those religions, these value systems, have two principles they share in common. And the two principles started with monotheism and the Jews. Zedakah and Tikkun Olam. Zedakah means generally, we must treat one another as brother and sister. We should show one another respect and dignity because we are like things, we are human beings in a world that has nothing else like us, and we are to treat one another with love, charity, use your own words. The second principle is what do you do with this relationship. Well, we don’t know exactly how we got here, why we got here, etc., etc. That’s for minds larger than ours. But we know that we are like kinds, and we should work together and make this as good an experience as possible. Tikkun Olam. Let us repair the universe. Now, Islam believes that. Buddhism, that has no God, believes it. Every Ethical Humanist I ever met believes it. Those two principles: we’re supposed to love one another, and we’re supposed to work together to make the experience better: that’s all the religion we need, really, to make a success of this planet.

Intelligent? No, Incompetent, Iniquitous Design

Posted in Atheism, Religion with tags , , , , , , on August 4, 2009 by S.A.

Being a former Jehovah’s Witness, I occasionally peruse their website just for laughs. Much of what they believe is pretty standard fundamentalist Christian fare. But there is just something about the way they say it that is inimitable. Here is something I found on a page at their site, titled Life, A Product of Design:

Toddlers tumble and bump their heads. Older children fall from trees and off bicycles. Athletes crash into one another on the playing field. Motorists have countless road accidents. Yet, in spite of all these falls, bumps, and crashes, we often escape without serious injury. We tend to take the toughness and resilience of our bodies for granted. But as scientists are beginning to discover, from our bones to our skin, we are the product of truly brilliant designs.

Apart from the bogus reference to new “discoveries” by “scientists”, this little blurb is really quite remarkable: it is so ridiculously naive, optimistic and unrealistic that it would make Dr. Pangloss himself blush.

This kind of “design argument” is a sort of drivel that we nontheists often hear, and the response will generally go the direction of explaining that there is nothing about animal anatomy and physiology that evolutionary biology cannot explain. Of equal importance is to point out to the design proponents that for every example of “good design” they can come up with, there are at least as many, if not many more, examples of “design” that don’t paint such a pretty picture.

There is a wonderful page over at that features a compilation of many such examples. If you’ve never seen it before, it is a must-read. Bookmark it and peruse it when you can. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be inspired. The page is here.

Here is an example, to give you an idea of the content. Most of the entries include citations as well:

Only a Designer would have had the infinite wisdom and compassion to create the nematode known as the guinea worm or medina worm, which grows to be three feet long and reaches sexual maturity inside human beings. The larval form of the worm lives inside a tiny crustacean found in drinking water. A human being who has swallowed such water becomes infected by the worm which travels to the legs (or other parts of the body) where it causes painful inflammation and crippling muscle damage. When you bathe in a chilly lake or stream, the worm sticks its head out of your leg and releases thousands of eggs…

Here is another:

Only a Designer would have had the infinite wisdom and compassion to create the tuberculosis bacterium, the world’s deadliest contagion. In the last two hundred years it has killed an estimated two billion people and disfigured, crippled, and blinded billions more. During the late nineteenth century it killed more people in the United States than any other disease. It presently infects one third of all the people on earth (though most are merely latent carriers), and kills nearly three million people each year…

Behold! The exquisitely designed tuberculosis bacteria, one of God's special gifts to His children.

Behold! The exquisitely designed tuberculosis bacteria, one of God's special gifts to His children.

You get the idea. Not exactly pleasant reading, but then again, reality is chock full of unpleasantries, and the best way to deal with them is head-on. It is instructive to remind certain people of them, people that would like to think otherwise.

Now, there is no reason why we cannot come at this from an angle with a bit more levity to it, and that is exactly what the poet Philip D. Appleman has done with his hilarious poem “Intelligent? Design?” from his book Karma, Dharma, Pudding & Pie, which is written to flow with the melody of Battle Hymn of the Republic*. Here is one of the verses:

You wish a guy’s urethra did
The jobs that were proposed:
Both lover’s clout and waterspout
Is what you had supposed.
Alas, the Great Designer squeezed
A prostate ’round your hose:
Intelligent Design!

Something to sing next time the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to your door.


* This famous American song has been the victim of parody before, most notably at the hands of the extremely capable Mark Twain, who used it to make a scathing attack on the perpetrators of the Phillipine-American War. I’m certain Twain would be disappointed, but not surprised, to learn that through much of the century after the war he hated so much, we’d be at it again. Anyway, his version went like this:

Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword;
He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored;
He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored;
His lust is marching on.

I have seen him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the Eastern dews and damps;
I have read his doomful mission by the dim and flaring lamps—
His night is marching on.

I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my pretensions, so with you my wrath shall deal;
Let the faithless son of Freedom crush the patriot with his heel;
Lo, Greed is marching on!”

We have legalized the strumpet and are guarding her retreat;
Greed is seeking out commercial souls before his judgement seat;
O, be swift, ye clods, to answer him! be jubilant my feet!
Our god is marching on!

In a sordid slime harmonious Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others’ goods an itch.
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.

Dante’s Heretics

Posted in Atheism, Dante, Hell, Religion, The Infernova with tags , , , on July 26, 2009 by S.A.

heretic_burningIn Dante’s Inferno, the Sixth Circle lies within Lower Hell, the region encompassed by the walls of Dis, that demarcation between sins of Incontinence and sins of Violence. His primary denizens here are The Heretics. They receive considerable attention in his text, with four separate Cantos (8 through 11) dedicated to them. More lines are devoted to them than any other group in The Inferno, so they are obviously rather important.

I was interested to learn that the term heresy itself comes from the Greek word for “a choosing.” It would, of course, become synonymous with choosing anything other than orthodox Church doctrine. During Dante’s era, the desire that every member of a community believe exactly as they were told was so strong, and the fear that a heretic would corrupt others was so overwhelming, that it was considered paramount to cut the offending body out of the picture as effectively as possible. Heretics were given a chance to recant their beliefs. Those that did not kowtow to such pressures were typically taken to the stake. The official pronouncement of Pope Innocent III (what an ill-fitting name) was: “Anyone who attempted to construe a personal view of god which conflicted with the church dogma must be burned without pity.”

The hysterical concern with heresy was kicked off in the twelfth century, in reaction to the Cathars, or Albigensians, a sect that considered the world to be a creation of an evil being. They believed in reincarnation. Yet, they were also Christians that spurned material wealth and considered Jesus to be the son of God. But since they openly despised the Catholic Church and labeled it as a tool of Satan, it isn’t surprising that they incurred its wrath (though this hardly excuses the horrific executions that the Church sponsored and called for, and then had secular authorities carry out).

The Cathar persecutions reached their heights decades before Dante’s birth. During his lifetime, a popular target of Catholic persecution was the Beguines, a loosely organized order of devout Christian women. These women held no particularly unorthodox beliefs, lived lives of voluntary simplicity, served the needy, accepted the Church and its authority, and attempted to provide translations of devotional documents that the laity could understand. Marguerite Porete, a Beguine who scandalously wrote (in French, and not in Latin) that it was possible for the soul to find union with God in this life and therefore not need to explicitly cultivate virtue, was rewarded with a trip to the stake in 1310.

And its nice to see that after the excruciating end that these people were given on earth, Dante’s God provides them with the bonus of eternal suffering in a like manner: in The Inferno, heretics are encased in burning tombs with red-hot walls.

All because of God’s “perfect” Love, Intellect, and Justice. And all for a minor difference in the interpretation of dogmas that cannot be tested against reality.