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Religious Windows

Hey, here’s a good question—

Bonwell—I’m enjoying your new blog, but why do you call it “secular” when the entire thing is about Atheism? And what does “centered” have to do with it?

Good questions, which I’ll answer in reverse order. The “centered” part of my blog name is in reference to the Overton Window. The idea of the Overton Window is that while a society may consider some ideas “far left” or “far right,” what they’re referring to is what their society considers extreme. In the United States, government-run health care is considered “far left,” but for virtually all of Europe it’s considered the least someone could do… even the idea of insurance-based healthcare is freakishly right-wing to them. We consider it “far right” to suggest that certain moral principles or behaviors be mandated by law, but there are many Asian countries who would consider a simple legal mandate to be far too liberal, preferring instead to suppress any form of communication that would even suggest deviant behavior.

The Overton Window is used to great effect by religious folk in the United States. You can easily find a news item on any given day (especially Christmas week) which tries to suggest that simply allowing to someone to live a life free of religion is an offensive, repulsive idea that itself suppresses other people’s freedom of religion. Glenn Beck has written a wonderful fiction about what would happen if the Overton Window shifted to the far left, and has written plenty of non-fiction about what would happen if it shifted to the far right.

Even when Christianity is not referenced directly, its teachings are often a given in the public discourse. “There’s nothing wrong with being gay,” many argue, “but everyone can agree that sodomy is morally reprehensible.” Well, who says? Where did the word ‘sodomy’ come from? The book of Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament. The argument begins with “sodomy, being one of the acts of Sodom, which God struck down,” and goes from there. Without making any statements in either way of my opinion of homosexuality (yet), let’s focus on this point: our social discourse defaults to Christian morality as the default and works from there. Christianity is a conservative religion, literally—its teachings are entirely based on the values of people who lived 2000-6000 years ago, and any updates to that ethos are considered blasphemy, or worse. By setting Christianity as the default, we’re shifting the window to cover only religious conservative ideas, where any form of new thought is considered offensively radical. That is where the “centered” part of the blog name comes in—we want to shift the window of discourse back to the middle of the spectrum.

As for the “secular” part: I’m an atheist, it’s true. I also go to church. I’ve gone every week for the last month, in fact. I won’t say which one because denominations are a purely Christian obsession and I’m not Christian, but I’ve attended services at churches ranging from Unitarian to Baptist to Bible Missionary to Orthodox. I’ve also been to Muslim seminars, had lunch with the Hare Krishnas, and walked through the halls of a Mormon temple. I held my daughter at her Christening, which I insisted she go through. I pray, although as an atheist I refer to it as “wishing.” As in, I wish I could have that job. I wish I had more time to write. I wish I were a famous celebrity. It brings me the same comfort as praying brings to a Christian, and since prayers are (or should be done) behind closed doors, where nobody can hear them, my wishes have the same ultimate effect. I am atheist not because I have not been exposed to religions, but because I have been exposed to so many that I realize how much of it is myth and legends.

Also, even the most extreme atheists do not flatly dismiss the notion of God. Richard Dawkins says that on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 being a religious zealot and 7 being the absolute, unwavering non-belief of any higher power, he’s a six. Bill Maher states that he follows the church of “I don’t know.” Atheists live their lives with the presumption that there is no higher power above them (one of the many reasons why they don’t call themselves agnostic), but very, very few of them straight out say that the existence of God is impossible. It’s an issue I covered in week two of this blog, and one I’ll return to next week and beyond.

It’s not in my interest to attack religion. It is in my interest to explore truth. There is not a single issue I can cover where there is not at least one Christian denomination who agrees with me. I want to foster a society where people are free to think, to explore, to find new things, be it a new planet, a new state of consciousness, or simply to explore the beauty of sound. Those things are impossible if we refuse to accept new beliefs, or if we base everything we learn on what we’ve already been told.

If there ever is a religion which accepts reality over preconceived notions, I would be the first to join, but I think that idea defies the very concept of religion itself. And thus, whatever I may personally believe, I will continue to push for us all to live in a secular world.

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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The Good Atheist

People forget that the Good Samaritan in the bible was a dirty heathen. That was Jesus’ whole point—as far as his people were concerned, Samaritans had no reason to be good, but they were anyway.

Now, one could argue that Samaritans were at the very least monotheists, but that wasn’t exactly how the Hebrews viewed them, and that certainly wasn’t how the Christians viewed them, what with them practically wiping out the Samaritan race in the sixth century or so. Samaritans at the time of Jesus were viewed essentially the same as Muslims are viewed now. So imagine how the following conversation would go these days:

A lawyer asked the preacher, “the bible says to love others as we love ourselves. But which others?

Replied the preacher, “as you walk down the streets of New York early in the morning, you are mugged, beaten, and left for dead in an alley. A priest comes by on his way to open the church, but rather than help you, he crosses to the other side of the street. Then comes a rabbi, but he too crossed to the other side. But then comes a muslim, who sees you and takes pity on you. He cleans and bandages your wounds. He puts you in the back of his car, drives you to the hospital, and checks you in. He puts down two hundred dollars and tells the nurse, ‘Please treat this man right away. Here is my number—if this man is unable to pay, call me and I will cover his bills.’ Which of those three men is your neighbor?”

The lawyer says, “the one who had mercy on me.”

The preacher says, “then you should do the same for him.”

Feasibly, the modern Christian would have many things to say about the story. No doubt, many Christians would immediately say “that story is offensive! To suggest that a priest would not help someone that he found on the road. This story proves that you hate Christians, and you’re just trying to make them look bad.” It’s safe to say that plenty of people reacted to Jesus’s story the exact same way. But that was the story that Jesus told.

But the second thing a modern Christian might say is, “okay, a Muslim might help, sure, but not an atheist.” Don’t think I’m being cynical, and don’t think I’m attacking Christians. Studies support this claim, that Christians do not believe that atheists have morals. They believe that it is their religion which gives them their morality. It stands to reason, then, that without religion, people must not be moral.

Yet, people who disavow religion become no more or less criminal than they were before they converted to atheism (however, many nonreligious people who are criminals do become more civil when they convert to Christianity, but it’s important to ask the question: “converted from what?” Usually, they have converted from a lifestyle of gang warfare and family abuse). Virtually all prominent atheists have been addressed with the famous question—”if you don’t believe in God or Hell, what’s to stop you from killing someone if you know you can get away with it?

First, as seven million Americans will tell you, threat of punishment alone is really not that much of a deterrent for people to do wrong. There’s certainly a gray area where people are conflicted on whether they’ll do the wrong thing, and their religion may give them some guidance, but religion doesn’t serve as any better of a deterrent than laws, and nobody claiming that all religious people are virtuous should be taken seriously. Steven Weinberg takes it a step further: “With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

So being religious doesn’t really inspire all that much morality in people. However, atheism does. Ask yourself this: if someone’s job is on the line, and they suddenly start working harder and doing a better job, do you think to yourself, “wow, I never realized that this person had such a deep-seated work ethic?” Of course not. You think to yourself, “so that’s what it takes to get this person off their ass.” If you tell them that their job is safe and they start slacking, they’re lazy. You have to threaten their job to get them to work.

That’s how atheists view this argument that Christians cannot be moral without religion. We don’t think of Christians as moral for fearing God; we think they’re so inherently lazy in life that they need a boss to get on their ass to do the right thing.

The good atheist is a truly good person, because they’re good despite the fact that they don’t have to be. If you do evil, there will be no punishment. If you help no one, there will be no Hell. And yet, it is expected that you do good in this world. Many of the most devoted environmentalists are atheists. The founders of modern democracy professed a nonbelief in God. Many of the most universally charitable organizations are secular or humanist: Red Cross, United Way, Peace Corps, etc. while religiously motivated groups like Boy Scouts of America, The Catholic Church, and Rescue Missions at the very least require a show of fealty of their benefactors, and at worst will flatly refuse to help people in need who are outside of their religious circle.

And in exchange for their good deeds, the atheist gets nothing. No heaven, no afterlife, no golden camels. There isn’t even a mythology among atheists where anyone has been rewarded for their good deeds. On the contrary—if someone is rewarded, the ‘goodness’ of their deeds is thrown in doubt (such as happened to the Presidents of secular charity United Way on several occasions). So what you have is a group of people who are expected to sacrifice themselves to the benefit of others, to the benefit of the Earth, and even to the benefit of generations that don’t even exist yet, and they are expected to do so without any congratulations, any rewards, or any fringe benefits of any kind. But they have to do it anyway.

Now that’s a true test of faith.

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

The Odds of Existing

If there is no God, that means that our existence just happened by total chance. What are the odds of that happening?

The answer: 1 in 1 (approximately).

First off, it’s always nice to start off with where theists and atheists agree. It is true that if there is no God, then in fact, the existence of anything at all is just complete, random chance. Atheists cannot back out of this one by saying that the natural order of the world is predisposed to foster life. Any time you suggest any sort of predisposition in the Universe, you are affirming the existence of God. The only people who actually believe that God is a humanoid male with white hair and a beard is an idiot. If you’re reading this, and you are thinking to yourself, yeah, of course God is a man, you’re an idiot. If you’re thinking, of course not, God is a woman, you’re a feminist idiot (no correlation).

Anyway, the point is that if there is any kind of natural disposition to the world, that means there is a design to the world, a form of consciousness that existed before the universe and had a hand in its creation. An atheist must agree that this does not exist. If they disagree, maybe they aren’t Christian, but they’re not atheist.

Now, we need to agree on what “chance” means. That answer is simple enough—for anything in the universe that has any chance at all of existing, it exists. Because if it doesn’t exist, there’s no chance for it to exist. Yet. Maybe in the future it will have a better chance. So, for example, theists like to say things like, if everything is random, then somewhere in the universe, the correct alignment of molecules must have collided in the exact right way for a wristwatch to spontaneously appear in the middle of space. Nope, that would never happen. “Well then,” comes the response, “things aren’t totally random then, are they? There is at least enough order to the world that wristwatches aren’t spontaneously appearing in space.”

First of all, if the only way you can sell your argument is by bringing up space watches, your argument is already in trouble, although we will be bringing up the space watch again in this blog. Second of all, as we have already addressed in this blog, if your argument depends on redefining words to such an absurd degree that it loses all meaning, you have no argument. “Chance” does not refer to every possible thing you could imagine happening. It’s the set of every single thing that you could reasonably expect to happen. So if you roll a six-sided die six times, there is a 1 in 46,656 chance that the result will be 1 every time. Not very good odds, but, there is NO chance of the roll being 7 every time. It’s not in the realm of possibility.

So, argument two is that the chances of life existing, exactly as it is, is so infinitesemally small that there had to be an intelligent design which created life. It’s true that the odds of life spontaneously existing are practically zero. But the terms “zero” and “practically zero” are complete opposites. One is nonexistence, and the other is existence. And we exist.

The universe is so vast that it’s difficult to comprehend how many possibilities it presents, but we can start with what we know exists. Currently, there are seven billion people on Earth. That’s this many:

7,000,000,000

To give you an idea of what a huge number of people that is, consider this: when we want to emphasize that there is such an absurdly small chance of something happening, we say there is a “99.9% chance that it won’t happen.” Well, say there were a 99.9% chance that you will not spontaneously combust within the next three seconds. Pretty good, right? Actually, if 0.1% of the people in the world were to spontaneously combust right now, that would be 7,000,000, or the entire population of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming combined. Hope you didn’t want to visit the Big Sky country.

The point is, once we start looking at figures above 10,000 or so, we can no longer really comprehend things like probability, or chance.

Now I’d like to show you something.

To the center-right in this picture is the constellation Virgo. It’s sixteen of the hundreds of little white spots in this picture. Now, let’s zoom in on just one of those dots, one of Virgo’s “belt.”

Again, from Earth, this mess of things appears to us as a single dot. This is a cluster of eleven of the galaxies inside of that one dot. Each of these galaxies is at least as large or larger than the Milky Way. You may notice that I said it was eleven “of the” galaxies. That’s because there are actually more: in what we think of as one star, there are 1,300 galaxies.They’re right next to the Coma Supercluster, which can only be seen with a telescope—in other words, there is a group of three thousand galaxies behind Virgo that we don’t even include in our calculation of stars in the sky.

Now let’s talk about planets. As we discussed in Discovering Tyche, we really have no idea how many rocks are orbiting the sun, but there are at least twelve that are big enough to be considered a planet of some kind. We’re just getting the technology to look at nearby stars, so we’ve only been able to look at the 70 closest stars to the sun, and so far 51 of them have star systems (the “solar” system is the star system around our star, Sol). That’s an incredibly high proportion of stars to have planets on them, and each system has tens or potentially hundreds of planet-type things around it. But to be safe, let’s presume that the solar system is average, which means there are about six planets around the average star. That means there are at least this many planets in the Universe (based on just what we’ve discovered for sure):

42,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

Again, let’s stress that this is our most conservative estimate. There are possibly infinitely more. Let me add one more wrinkle—this is only including the number of planets that exist in our sky at this particular moment. I say “in our sky” because new stars are forming all the time, with planets developing from the surrounding space dust, and it can take literally billions of years for them to appear in our sky. Also, stars collapse all the time, usually absorbing neighboring planets in the process, so countless planets have been destroyed that could have had life on them.

One very last note, and we’ll finally be able to address whether life could have randomly occurred: If you lay out one million shot glasses, and put a golf ball in exactly one of them, the odds that a particular shot glass has the gold ball in it is 0.001%. Not very good. But the odds that there is a golf ball in one of them is 100%. Now, what is special about that particular shot glass? Absolutely nothing. The ball had to be in one of them.

Okay, here we go.

Consider all of the things that must happen for life to randomly exist. It could take millions or even billions of years to happen. It would have to happen on a planet of an exact temperature, near a star that meets very specific criteria. Even if some form of organism were to exist on that planet, the conditions would have to be absolutely perfect for the organisms to develop into sentient life. It would have to be able to evolve in a million different directions, with 99.999% of those directions ending in failure before any form of sentient life could develop, and even when sentient life were to develop, it would be imperfect. It would have old, obsolete pieces reminiscent of older versions of the body that was only necessary in intermediary phases. Even in its sentient form, it would continue to suffer from mutations, illnesses, and genetic disorders, partially because the the intelligent being is still evolving and is not yet perfected, and partially because it is the organism’s experimental nature that resulted in its progressive evolution. Even in its most perfect state, it may be completely vulnerable to even the simplest of one-celled creatures or even zero-celled that can bring down the entire organism, and even if it survives all of that, the intelligent life may only survive  for a couple hundred thousand years before it self-destructs, participating in only the tiniest sliver of the Universe’s history.

If the odds of existence happening, even in this imperfect and frankly embarrassingly inefficient form, is at least 1 in 42,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, then statistically, it’s guaranteed to happen. In fact, if the odds that this could occur are at least 0.000000000000000000001%, then it is probably happening in at least 500 different places at this exact moment.

The last question, then, is why Earth? Why would it happen here? Why would the intelligent life appear on a planet that seems to be perfectly designed to support it? Well, for one, a planet rife with earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and drought is hardly the ideal environment, but if intelligent life were to exist, that’s where it would occur. And to us, Earth is pretty special, but that’s just because it’s the one planet that cultivated our form of intelligent life.

Cosmically speaking, the only thing special about Earth is that it’s the shot glass our golf ball happened to land in.

 
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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Death

I know what happens when we die.

When I was around 13, I suffered a concussion. My friend and I would go to Camelsback Park, which had a steep hill behind it separating the park from the wetlands below. We would climb to the top of the hill, sit down, and slide down the back of the hill, like sledding without a sled. It was a pretty common pastime, and there were smooth trails well worn into the hill, so not only was it painless but you could really get going fast. As I took one of the turns, as I had done many times before, I found myself heading straight off a cliff. They had started building subdivisions over the wetlands and had started carving out parts of the hill to make way for a road. Before I had time to react I was over the cliff and on the ground. I looked up and saw my friend’s legs dangling over the cliff. He had grabbed onto a thicket of grass before he went over. I stood up and quickly rushed back up to the top. I grabbed his hand and pulled him back up from the cliff.

He was angry. Really angry, and I couldn’t understand why. He stomped around along the edge of the cliff, yelling at me, “what took you so long? What, did you think that was funny, to leave me hanging there?” I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to say. The second I saw him dangling off the cliff, I rushed to his aid and helped him up.

It turned out that he had been hanging there for several minutes, trying to claw his way back up. I realized at that point that I had no recollection of actually hitting the ground, or for that matter, flying toward it. When I landed, I had immediately blacked out and lied there unconscious for a significant period of time. It was a weird feeling, knowing that my body had experienced something that I had not (lying there and doing nothing).

It’s an incredibly common occurrence, blacking out. People black out when they have too much to drink, or take too many drugs. People can become so angry that they black out. People wake up from comas, sometimes years after they lapse, and have no idea that any time had even passed. Those very few of us who suffer from schizophrenia or some other detachment disorder could have entire episodes where they are awake and functioning but have no recollection of it. It’s not just lost memories—we literally do not experience those moments. Our brain goes on cruise control and goes on without us.

I struggle to understand how anyone who has gone through any of these experiences feel that there has to be an afterlife. Many people argue that there must be an afterlife, otherwise once we die there would just be… well, not even nothing, because nothing is black. Time still passes. We’re still there in nothing. Buddhists believe that after we die we are reincarnated, a concept so counterintuitive that in order for it to make sense, they have to convince themselves that before they were born, they could have been the King of Spain or some African witch doctor. I wonder, if there is some Buddhist out there who believes that they are the reincarnation of Cleopatra, why wasn’t Cleopatra Buddhist?

Atheists have a lot of things to explain if they want to convince people that religion is false, but the afterlife isn’t one of them. Whether there is a Heaven or a Hell isn’t one of those things that we can say “I guess we’ll never know” because we actually have a pretty good idea of what happens when our soul is gone from our bodies. Just ask any football player, or alcoholic. One minute you’re there, and the next minute you’re not. And for anyone who has come back from a blackout or a coma, the next minute they’re there again, but eventually they’re going to not be here again, but at least they know what happens when that inevitable fate occurs—they’ve been through it before.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Deus ad Populum

I have good news.

If you have a belief or theory about reality, there is no number of people, no matter how strong or influential, who can have an effect on whether you are right or wrong. The powers that be can outlaw your belief system, those with opposing beliefs can evangelize against you, they can bribe people to believe otherwise, they can mandate that government schools are forbidden to say anything about your belief system while brainwashing future children to believe the exact opposite, and it won’t matter. The number of people who believe something has absolutely no effect on reality.

It’s a concept that seems to have been particularly lost on Americans, who have been fed the religion of democracy. When faced with, as Al Gore calls it, the inconvenient truth of climate change, we start trumpeting out surveys and polls which cite that a majority of people don’t believe in global warming, and that’s all they need to know – there’s nothing anyone can say to convince them otherwise, now that over 50% of them have decided it doesn’t exist. But, in fact, exactly the opposite is true—the more people don’t believe in global warming, or don’t believe it’s caused by man, the less we will do to temper it, and the more effect we will have.

The same argument is made in defense of a higher power. They cite that 99% of all mankind believes in a higher power. How could it be possible that a higher power doesn’t exist, if so many people believe one exists?

There are two serious flaws to this argument. The first is that the majority of those 99% that particular religious folk (we’ll refer to the Christians here) are including in their ranks the same people whom they often vilify. The argument at the time is that, for all their shortcomings, at least those Muslims, Buddhists, spiritualists, Satanists, pagans, Tim Tebow fans recognize that the world didn’t just happen by random chance. As Walter said in the film classic The Big Lebowski, “say what you want about the Nazis, dude, at least it’s an ethos.” In political circles, there is no societal group that people distrust more than atheists, although among Republicans it’s a statistical tie with Muslims. But where does that fellowship with other believers come in during day to day life?

Christians credit faith for the beauty of church music. So is that the same higher power that Buddhists speak of when they say that all music is a distraction from God? When Muslims say that women are so close to God that if you see them veering into temptation, the merciful thing to do is kill them, can the possibly be speaking of the same higher power as Catholics, who say that women are born farther from God because of the original sin committed by Eve? Did that higher power really tell the Jews that they were the only true descendants, and then tell the Muslims that Allah has specifically cursed the Jews for their heresy? What did Jesus think about the higher power worshipped by the pagans, considering that he spends half his days as a preacher promising that they will all be damned for their beliefs? These people may all believe in a higher power, but it certainly don’t believe in the same one.

The second flaw in ad populum belief is much simpler: belief has no effect on reality. The most popular atheist response to the ad populum argument is this: if, suddenly, fifty percent of humanity suddenly disavowed their belief in God, would his spontaneously disappear? The less rhetorically gifted of Christians would say “of course not,” not realizing (or caring) that they just disproved their own argument. But the point of this blog is not to go after the easy targets, it’s to find the truth, so you have to consider the best argument Christians could provide, and the best argument I’ve heard is this: there can never be a time that people do not believe in God, because the Holy Ghost endows us with belief. In other words, they’re not saying that God exists because people believe in him; they’re saying that people believe in him because he exists. And while we may not see him manifest in literal ways (then we would not be rewarded for our faith, as it was not tested), he created us knowing his existence.

Well, that’s a tight argument. In logic, it’s what’s referred to as a weak theory, in that it’s not falsifiable. You just have to accept it on the basis that it sounds right. After all, if you say that our very beliefs are influenced by God, then how can we possibly judge our beliefs in God? If you accept the premise, then you have to accept that there very well may be a God. So you have to go after the premise. To repeat, the premise is as follows: simply by virtue of being human, we are inclined to believe in a God. If so, why do we need churches? Why must there be a Hell? Why are we inclined to sin? Don’t say it’s the devil’s influence, because there is no infernal ghost. There’s no reason to believe that anyone blessed by the holy ghost would ever turn to sin. Yet Christians acknowledge that all humans sin.

Can it possibly be a coincidence that of those vast quantities of believers, virtually every single one who believes in a higher power was told to believe so once a week for their entire childhood, and in almost every case, as adults they believe in the exact same higher power that they were told to as children. And then you have to account for the fact that an overwhelming number of ardent atheists were raised to believe in God and don’t. So really, it would seem that despite the fact that close to 100% of humanity is forcibly indoctrinated to believe in a higher power, there are tens of millions of them who don’t anyway. It would seem that, in fact, humans are born not believing in a God, and are only later exposed to the concept, along with some very compelling incentives to at least claim a belief in higher power, whether they believe in one or not, if only on the off chance that there is.

But for all of this debate over the Deus ad Populum argument, the fact is that it doesn’t matter. Not at all. Whether there is or isn’t a God is absolutely and completely unaltered by what people believe. All we can really prove is that if we do believe he exists, it’s not because he told us to. We told ourselves. And if all else fails, you Christians can rest assured that no matter how many people agree with me, your God is safe. Our faith that there is no God has no impact on whether he’s actually there.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

Discovering Tyche

There are more planets in our solar system.

If you ask most people to quickly state how many planets there are in our solar system, most people will say nine, because we keep forgetting about that Pluto thing. In fact, if you google “planets,” one of the top hits will be nineplanets.org, which continue to defend their name by pointing out “the change in [Pluto’s] terminology does not affect what’s actually out there.” Because there is, quite definitely, a giant rock spinning around the sun just past Neptune. There are actually several – at least three others hanging out with Pluto, as well as Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt.

Ignoring the dwarf planets, though, astronomers are currently scrutinizing over a pile of evidence which seems to proving the existence of the planet Tyche. It’s probably the second-largest planet, after Jupiter, but far more dense because it’s actually solid whereas Jupiter is gaseous. Its existence was only first proposed about 12 years ago, and there’s still no direct evidence of it, though scientists believe there is enough indirect evidence to argue its existence.

So the obvious question is: with millions of stars and galaxies mapped out and tracked, with planets discovered in other solar systems, with the locations of thousands of comets so well documented that we can predict their exact location 100 years from now, how did we not notice a planet the size of Jupiter in our own solar system? How is it that we still don’t see it?

Simple. The planet doesn’t get any sunlight.

It’s too far away, and it’s too dark of a planet to begin with. For all of our incredible technology, we’re still depending almost entirely on telescopes. Technically, even the existence of black holes is only theoretical, because they don’t reflect light. The gravitational pull of the sun is enough to keep Tyche in orbit, but sunlight only reaches so far. The indirect evidence supporting Tyche’s existence is mostly from observing what we can see—comets and other space objects that are obviously being affected by something just around the corner.

We can’t prove its existence, but we know it’s there. We observe its presence.

That last sentiment should sound familiar. It’s a popular refrain from people who believe in God in arguing that He exists.

But religion didn’t teach us about the planets. Science did. We didn’t figure out the world was round because God told us it was, we figured it out ourselves. Try to imagine mankind’s amazement when we discovered that sickness was not God’s punishment for wicked thoughts, but were an indication that there were MILLIONS of invisible creatures living inside of each of our bodies.

Religious people struggle to understand how atheists could have any respect for the world around them. How could you truly appreciate the earth and the stars if you have this belief that they just happened by chance? How can you have respect for life if you see humans as simply the progression of evolution from a microbe?

Theists and atheists alike agree that the odds are virtually zero that all of this happened by accident. To an atheist, then, the fact that all of this happened, that we defied all odds simply in existing, is fucking mind blowing. Then we atheists, in turn, look at religion with disappointment that people would be confronted with all of this amazing life around us and simply shrug their shoulders and say, “well, of course it happened. God wanted it to.”

How depressing is that? To an atheist, believing is God is the equivalent of looking at a picture of some incredible natural phenomenon and having someone say “eh, it was just photoshopped.” The thought that a supreme being simply made the world as he wanted it is boring and pointless. Who cares what we do on this planet, if it’s all just part of some guy’s plan that we can’t control?

Tyche has existed for longer than there has been life in the solar system. It’s probably older than Earth. Yet we had no idea it was there. There were signs that our understanding of the solar system was wrong, though – Pluto didn’t move right, comets didn’t follow straight paths, and there’s a giant asteroid belt just past Mars that we can’t explain.

It is at this point that Christians just say that the solar system was as God planned it, so if He wanted an asteroid belt, or for some weird force to push around comets, that was His will. That’s it. Three thousand years ago we gave all the credit in the universe to one guy and just said that we’d never understand how he works. Atheists are inclined to agree that we’ll never understand everything, but we really want to try, because we continue to be amazed at what nature has in store, what amazing things have been happening for the last 14 billion years and beyond. We’re continuously in awe of everything around us, how a caterpillar can turn into a butterfly, how an offshoot of primates can develop abstract thought, how a Samaritan would stop to help a beaten Jew despite their mutual hatred. Meanwhile, when Christians are confronted with those same questions, they don’t ask. They already have the answer: an architect named God, writing our existence like some reality TV show.

Christians wonder how atheists can ignore the grandeur of God. Atheists can’t figure out why Christians think religion deserves credit for any grandeur at all.

But we continue to study religion in an effort to find out.

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Defining God

Last week, we took note of how difficult it is to define a word. Our own biases weigh so heavily into what we say, we’re always inclined to define a word in a way that best fits our own desires. So when we ask the question “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” we may disagree on the definition of the word ‘sound.’ To the person who wants to dismiss the spiritual relevance of that statement, they will define the word as a disruption of molecules in the air, whether or not those disruptions are interpreted by a living ear. But for those of us who have an appreciation for the impact of sound in our daily lives, we may find that definition maliciously inefficient.

If we can’t agree on the definition of sound, we certainly shouldn’t expect to agree on what we mean by the word God. But with ‘sound,’ though we may not agree that the definition above completely encompasses what it is to be ‘sound,’ we can all agree that sound encompasses at least that much. So then, let’s agree at a bare minimum what God is.

An atheist would likely start with a basic definition suggesting it was a delusion, or a symbolic metaphor of some kind, but since Christians obviously disagree with all of that, it doesn’t serve our purpose of being a universal definition. Christians may want to refer to God as the Creator of all things, Lord of man, etc. but an atheist would certainly disagree with all of that. A more neutral definition might be “the Creator of all things, according to a specific religion,” but that’s not giving a universal definition either, it’s specifically giving ownership of the definition to Christians. We come back around to atheists then, who might insist that there can be no definition that universally applies to God, because there is no God, and therefore ‘God’ means nothing. But atheists can certainly agree that when people refer to God, they’re certainly referring to something.

But what?

Of course, Judeo-Christian-Muslims are not the only people to refer to a god or gods. Native Americans refer to virtually everything as “the gods.” Egyptians had Geb and Nut and friends, Greeks had Mt. Olympus, pagans had spirits, and so on. Many modern Christians or “spiritualists” simply refer to a Higher Power, whatever That may be.

What do all of these gods have in common? Egyptians didn’t know where the sun went at night, which was a nuisance for them, since they relied heavily on the sun. Their ultimate explanation was that Horus and Set, two gods, were fighting between light and darkness, and day and night were the result. Early Greeks had a similar vision, with Apollo riding his chariot across the sky, which was much closer to how the sun actually worked, and in any case was understood by the Greeks as more of a metaphor. They didn’t literally believe that the big bright thing in the sky was Apollo. With many of their other gods, however, they were dead serious.

Many of the rules dictated in the Torah were reflections of things that the Hebrew people had observed, but didn’t fully understand. Things like hygiene and sociology. In Persia, people relied on the philosophy of Zoroastrianism, the philosophy of a successful people, until their land was violently taken over and they were driven into darker times, at which point the darker, more violent Muslim faith appeared. It explained what they did not understand — remember that the average farmer in Iran would know nothing of the Romans or Mongols, and would be unlikely to understand why their life would be changing in such a drastic way.

In this country, the predominant and most modern religion is Christianity. American Christians understand where the sun comes from. Most of us understand how we have ocean tides, earthquakes, and tornadoes. What we still don’t understand is where we came from. It’s a little difficult to wrap our heads around how chimpanzees and humans could be related, or why dinosaurs suddenly disappeared and mammals suddenly dominated. The Big Bang theory doesn’t explain how something could come from nothing. To Christians, this all points to one thing — God. Even with smaller things, God is involved. When a young child is killed for seemingly pointless reasons, they say that God works in mysterious ways. When a star athlete, raised to be humble, is asked to explain how he won the gold medal, he thanks God for his gifts. Any time that an atheist is unable to answer a Christian’s question about the world, they point to that as proof of a God.

Let’s take that last sentence and put it in its own context: any time we are unable to answer a question about the world, we point to it as proof of a God.

It is the one constant in all of history: God is what we don’t understand. God is our lack of answers. We laugh at the Hindu belief that mankind developed from a supernatural teardrop, because we know enough to know that it’s false. Christians who have disavowed many of the Bible’s stories (Eve coming from Adam’s rib, Noah’s Ark, the creation in six days) do so because we know at least enough to know what can and can’t happen. And as much as they have faith in God’s ability to heal, they still turn to modern medicine because they know it works. But as long as atheists can’t explain how the universe got here, Christians will still have an answer, and until atheists can provide an explanation for where man came from that adequately captures the grandeur of the human spirit, Christians will still have their own theory.

So if we want to disarm the Christian belief, we have to play by the Christian’s rules. As frustrating as it may be, the burden is in fact on atheists to explain everything, in a way that makes sense and still captures the grandeur of life, and until that happens, there will still be things that we do not understand.

There will still be a God.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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