Friday, February 20, 2009

Sound Off 02-21-09

Calling all Bible Scholars!

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has a Bible quiz. If you get time this weekend, I'd ask you to take a couple of minutes to answer their 50 question. Here's the link: I scored 38 (not bad for an ex-Catholic, right?).

How'd you score? And, how jaded or out-of-context do you feel the correct answers were?

Atheist Devotional Reflections on תּוֹרַת יְהוָה – Law of Witnesses

Pentateuchal jurisprudence is characterized by the inadmissibility of indirect or circumstantial evidence. That is, only direct evidence is permitted in legal matters, and this direct evidence is always in the form of two or more witnesses. Notice Deuteronomy 19:15:

One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth; at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall a matter be established.

Clearly, punitive means can only be implemented in the presence direct evidence in the form of witnesses. Hence, any of the sins in the Pentateuch for which there are prescribed community punishments (e.g., Sabbath breaking, adultery, rape, murder, anal intercourse between men, etc.) can only acted against in the event that there are witnesses. Hence, if a murder is committed, the guilty party can only be punished by execution if she was seen committing the murder. If she is found with a "smoking gun" seconds after the crime, such evidence is inadmissible in a Pentateuchal court as indirect and circumstantial.

Rabbinic jurisprudence, building upon the inadmissibility of indirect evidence and the requirement for witnesses, develops extreme case laws as illustrations. In one Talmudic case, a murder is committed with a projectile weapon inside of a house. The supposed guilty party and the victim are in the house, and there are two people outside on opposite sides of the house. One of the outside people observes through a window the supposed murderer trigger the weapon in the direction of the victim. The other outside person observes the victim fall over and die after being impacted by the projectile. Neither observer sees the entire act with the guilty person triggering the weapon and the victim dying. The rabbis ubiquitously rule in this case that the supposed guilty party cannot be tried for murder because both her action and the death of the victim were not witnessed by two witnesses. This is an example of the developments of biblical jurisprudence.

As the scientific understanding of the human psyche has improved, it is well understood that events witnessed while under stress or while experiencing anxiety are quite unreliable. How often is a crime witnessed (e.g., hit-and-run accident) after which the observers' stories exhibit irreconcilable incongruence and extreme malleability? Modern courts now admit indirect evidence such as DNA, credit-card histories, Internet history, etc. to indict a criminal. Pentateuchal and deutero-Pauline jurisprudence (see I Timothy 5:19) do not allow such evidence under theocratic rule.

I recall discussing this with a Messianic lady while I was in the Messianic community while on a walk. For whatever reason, we were discussing rape and the biblical punishment for rape. I brought up the fact that a rape, in biblical law, would require two or more witnesses in order to be punishable. She objected to this requirement from every possible angle. What if there was DNA evidence to indict the guilty? What if the woman testified against the guilty as a sole witness? What if the guilty told someone about it after the fact? In every case this lady's sense of justice cried out against the limited horizons of biblical jurisprudence, finding justice only in a system that would allow indirect evidence and the testimony of one witness. This leads me to the next observation.

In my ongoing account of Pentateuchal ethical blunders, it will be noted that there are three instances in the Bible where non-witnessed based, indirect evidence is admitted to indict a "guilty" party. In all three instances it relates to female promiscuity with the same "evidence" having no relevance to the man. I find it ironic that the Israelites found loop-holes in the need for direct evidence and allowed indirect evidence in situations that relate to male control over female sexuality. I have already addressed one of these ethical blunders in my post on Numbers 5. Many biblical theists are not aware of this the biblical need for direct witnesses in order to indict the guilty. How odd, in my observations, that so many Christians are in support of the biblical death penalty but are unwilling to apply the biblical requirements for witnesses?

The biblical law of witnesses is another example of where biblical ethics are regressive and exhibit limited horizons. This is an example of where freedom from scriptures releases society into higher levels of justice and greater ethical accountability.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Sound Off 02-20-09

The Darwin quiz was set up in the format of the game "Two-Truths, One-Lie" with two non-Darwin quotes and one Darwin quote. On a more personal note, we thought it would be fun to play a bit of "Two Truths." So, post three items about yourself. Write two true statements and one untrue. Hint: Mix up the order of your statements.

Today's Challenge:
Two Truths, One Lie

Everything I Ever Needed to Know About God I Learned From Watching "Stargate SG-1"

[The following is re-posted from my old blog at Scriptulicious's request]

Some people just don't get science fiction. They believe sci-fi is escapism for nerds, and they prefer stories that portray "real" characters in "real" conflicts arising from "real" situations. Personally, I love sci-fi, and believe that the majority of science fiction does deal with what's "real". The only difference is sci-fi treats "real" life in an allegorical way. Real issues of the here and now may be projected into a futuristic setting, but they are no less real. Take, for example, one of my all-time favorite sci-fi series: Stargate SG-1.

SG-1 is the story of a top-secret detachment of U.S. Air Force personnel who travel the galaxy through a network of interconnected stargates. These stargates allow instantaneous travel from one point in the galaxy to another by creating a "sub-space wormhole" between two gates. They were created by an ancient race of humans whom we now refer to as The Ancients. The members of SG-1 use the gate system to explore the galaxy, procure alien technologies, and combat the alien enemies of the earth.

The most piquant feature of earth's alien enemies is that they are in the habit of posing as gods. So, you could say that SG-1's prime directive is to protect the earth from false gods. While the false gods of the SG-1 universe included typical pagan deities such as Ra, Athena, Amaterasu, Yu Huang, Ba'al, etc., I propose that, since all gods are false gods, the lessons of SG-1 can be applied to any human religion. Here are some of those lessons:

Miracles Have a Scientific Explanation. Well, at least a science-fictional explanation. I grant you that SG-1, or any other science fiction story for that matter, tends to give some outlandish explanations for improbable things and events. Their scanners will often pick up "strange energy readings" or "an exotic form of radiation"; their laptop computers can interface Windows XP with completely alien operating systems; and, most curiously, the English language evolved identically on hundreds of different planets.

But the point is well taken: there is no magic, there are no miracles. However strange or improbable something might seem, it has a rational explanation. And, given a proper understanding of the scientific principles behind that improbable something, anyone can duplicate its effects. The SG-1 series starts out, in season 1, at a level of technology equal to modern day America. Ten seasons later, after a gradual accumulation of alien science and technology, we earthlings had garnered such miraculous abilities as intergalactic travel, teleportation "beams", force fields, cloaking devices, etc.

A Real God Would Not Concern Himself With Human Affairs. Even heaven is explainable rationally. The Ancients, the race who created the stargates, are conspicuously absent from the SG-1 universe. They were so technologically advanced that they were able to find a way to shed their mortal bodies and exist as energy in another plain of reality. This is a process known as "ascension".

While ascension provided the Ancients with eternal life and extraordinary powers, they followed a strict non-intervention policy with regards to the affairs of us mortals. The key insight of the ascended ancients is that, if all-powerful and all-knowing beings were to meddle in the affairs of ordinary humans, then they would necessarily rob us humans of any freedom to choose our own path. Robbing someone of their free will is immoral, a lesson that Yahweh, Allah, and Jesus seem impervious to.

God Does Not Care About Your Salvation. If ascension is the SG-1 equivalent to heaven, the Ancients, by dint of their no-meddling policy, had no intention of sharing ascension technology with us mortals. But the Ancients are not the only ascended beings in the galaxy. The Ori are another race of ascended beings (read "false gods") in the SG-1 menagerie. Unlike their Ancient cousins, the Ori rather enjoy meddling in human affairs and, what's more, have found a way to augment their power by feeding off the "strange energy" created by human worshippers. So, in order to increase the number of their worshippers, the Ori created a "bible" called The Book of Origin.

The Book of Origin is a collection of charming stories and moral wisdom that promises ascension (heaven) to anyone who follows the Ori religion. This, by the way, is an example of how religion piggybacks our notions of beauty and goodness. By this I mean that art and morality are human creations; but, throughout history, religion has usurped their authorship. Religion attempts to make us believe that god is the source of truth, of goodness, and of beauty.

However, in the hands of a god, truth and beauty have an evil underbelly: they are used as tools to awe and impress and, finally, subjugate humanity. The believer must proselytize her beliefs. If rational non-believers refuse to be proselytized, they are considered enemies of god and must be dealt with severely.

The followers of the Ori crusaded against the heathens in our galaxy. They used superior technology to instill fear and The Book of Origin to instill awe. They murdered those who refused to believe in the Ori as true gods. But the fate of the believer was almost as bad. The Ori had no intentions of ascending their followers.

God Is a Parasite. Not only are false gods not interested in sharing their power with mortals, but belief in god doesn't even benefit humanity. Here we have the most important insight of the SG-1 series: gods are parasites. Besides the Ori, another alien race posing as gods are the Goa'uld. The Goa'uld are a race of intelligent parasites, little snake-like creatures that attach themselves to the base of the brain of a human host and control the host's actions. The idea that a parasite can control the behavior of its host is not a fiction, it actually occurs in nature by means of what's called an extended phenotype.

In his book, The Extended Phenotype, Richard Dawkins shows how an organism's genes can effect not just the organism itself, but the organism's environment as well. We can clearly see this when we look at a beaver dam or a spider's web. But since the environment of a parasite is its host, the parasite's extended phenotype often manifests itself as behavioral changes in its host.

Take, for example the nematomorpha, or horsehair worm. They live in the water as adults, but their larvae must incubate inside the body of a cricket. Once the larva matures, the cricket is driven to drown itself in the nearest body of water where the horsehair worm wriggles out of its host and into its new environment.

Like the Goa'uld, the gods themselves -- or at least the concept of gods -- are like parasites infesting the brains of human hosts and changing their behavior. The beneficiary of this behavioral change is not the host, but the parasite. Like a cricket driven to suicide, the host of a religious belief is driven to deleterious behavior. In the best of circumstances, the host merely wastes time and energy talking to an invisible man, donating hard-earned money to the church, and trolling the internet. But in the worst case scenario, the parasite can drive the host to the ugliest of atrocities: bombing abortion clinics, crusades and jihad, suicide bombings, 9/11.


Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sound Off 02-19-09

The Disevangelists have made a quiz. Scroll down to the bottom of the page and take your best shot. There are 10 "challenges"; each challenge contains one quote from Charles Darwin and two quotes from other people; correctly identify the Darwin quote in each challenge.

Use today's Sound Off to let us know how you scored (I only got 80%) and to give of us feedback.

Credit goes to Scriptulicious for compiling the quiz.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Sound Off 02-18-09

William Dembski a leading Intelligent Design advocate made the following statement in his 1999 Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology:

[Scientific naturalism is not] to deny God. But it is to affirm that if God exists, he was marvelously adept at covering his tracks and giving no evidence that he ever interacted with the world. To be sure, there is no logical contradiction for the scientific naturalist to affirm God's existence. But this can be done only by making God a superfluous rider on top of a self-contained account of the world (p. 104).

Scientific naturalism is the unifying methodology of science. Dembski considers scientific naturalism to be a spiritual sickness and idolatry, and the above quote is an example of his critiques theistic evolution. For me, the salience of Dembski's statement is not in its application to theistic evolution but rather in what it suggests about evolution itself.

Dembski faults naturalistic evolution for the manner in which it veils God, making God out to be a "superfluous rider on top of a self-contained … world." Though evolution does not necessarily disprove the existence of God or gods, it does make the supernatural unnecessary. In the light of evolution, God becomes an unnecessary side to naturalistic processes. Dembski maintains that it is possible to maintain belief in God while believing in evolution, but such a belief is lacking in parsimony (p. 114).

Today's question:

What is the relationship between atheism and evolution? Why are some theists able to accept evolution and retain belief in God or the supernatural?

Devious, Dubious, Dogmatic Dembski

I just finished reading William Dembski's 1999 Intelligent Design manifesto entitled Intelligent Design: the Bridge Between Science & Theology. On the back cover a Rob Koons, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas acclaims this work stating, "William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of Information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time…" Dembski echoes this idea throughout the book as he presents himself and the other fledging design theorists (he lists Behe, Wells, Meyer, and Nelson) as the architects of a post-naturalistic science, a science that is liberated from the "intellectual pathology" (p. 120) and "idolatry" (p. 99) of methodological naturalism.

Dembski states, "Although design theorists take the question Which is correct, naturalistic evolution or intelligent design? as a perfectly legitimate question, it is not treated as a legitimate question by the Darwinian establishment" (p. 117). Throughout this work Dembski asserts that "the empirical evidence is in fact weak" (p. 119) for biological evolution. Apparently he assumes that his readers will agree with this assumption. Ironically, even Behe advocate of Intelligent Design (ID) that he is, accepts biological evolution as a fact despite his dispute over the mechanisms. Science does not so much as seek "correctness" as it does utility. Which theory, naturalistic evolution or ID is more robust or more capable of producing fruitful venues of research? Which theory has provided the best framework for answers? Design theory went the way of the Neaderthal in the late 1800's because it failed to provide robust research venues, it failed to make predictions, and it failed to provide frameworks to interpret field findings.

Dembski posits that "design theorists" are capable of asking which model is "correct." As already stated above, this question has been settled. However, the "design theorist" is incapable of asking this question honestly because she is committed to a metaphysical dogma called "creation." Because the "design theorist" believes in creation and in a creator she is limited in her outcomes. She could accept naturalistic evolution by recognizing the non-overlapping nature of faith and reason, yet she does not. She limits her findings to the horizons of her dogma.

Dembski argues that the majority of the American population is against naturalistic evolution. He states,

According to a 1993 Gallup poll, close to 50% of Americans are creationists of a stricter sort, thinking that God specially created human beings; another 40% believe in some form of God-guided evolution; and only 10% are full-blooded Darwinists. It's this 10%, however, that controls the academy (p. 117).

Somehow, Dembski seems to imply, science is directed by democratic vote. He should know better than to argue this way. This statement suggests the he is trying to manipulate his creationist and/or Christian readers into an emotional response to assert their might to make right. Scary thought…

Dembski claims that ID has "no prior religious commitments." He asserts that the religious neutrality of ID is what makes it scientific and different than "scientific creationism" (p. 247). However, Dembski plays his cards earlier; displaying that there are religiously metaphysical boundaries to the religions than can be served by his ID feign "religious neutrality." For example, he categorizes Hinduism as a form of "religious naturalism" (p. 101) for the manner in which it makes its deities subservient to the laws of nature and not outside of the same. He asserts that any form of naturalism leads to idolatry (p. 101), and he defines idolatry in a strictly biblical sense (p. 99). How is ID to be considered religiously neutral when it makes formulates its metaphysics based on the Bible to the exclusion of non-biblical religions?

Despite Dembski's education, he does not seem to be aware of the basic principles of natural selection. He treats "design" in nature as though any sort of naturalistic causation is unreasonable and mathematically impossible. What he so conveniently ignores and fails to mention is that natural selection selects "design." Because of natural selection it is now understood that "design" no longer requires a "designer."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Sound Off 02-17-09

Today's question:

What is your favorite genre of fiction? Why?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sound off 02-16-09

If you aren't interested in reading the autobiographical tale that I just posted, I would still like to hear your feedback on a question posed at the end of the story. Namely:

How could there be such things as fate and prophecy, if we have free will? Do we even have free will?

You might have to be a theist in order to answer this, but I'd ask atheists to take a stab at it, too.


Confiteor is a Latin term meaning "I confess", and I've adopted it as a title for any post that pertains to autobiographical accounts of my "spiritual" journey from indoctrination to deconversion. You might liken posts like this to the "testimonies" of converted Christians, though there's nothing spiritual going on here. I don't know how many I'll write, or how often I'll write them, but I hope you don't find them too boring or self-indulgent, and that they give you some food for thought.

Prima Pars: Prophecy

I was raised Roman Catholic because my older brother didn’t know how to fistfight. That’s basically how it was explained to me, in so many words. According to my mother, Artie frequently got himself beat up in the Cleveland Public School system, which is why she looked into parochial schools for me. I was the “baby” of the family – about 15 years younger than my assertive and self-confident Sis, who would not be able to protect me from bullies as she had for my brother – who is a year older than she.

My family was not Catholic, except for my dad, who was lapsus – he had not darkened the doorway of a church since... well, I don’t remember him ever going to church, unless someone was getting married and, even then, it had to be someone very close. My mom, when asked, described herself as Protestant; I think her church was United Methodist, but I don’t know what she was before the United Methodist church was founded in 1968, two years before I was born. She hardly attended church services either. For the both of them, faith seemed a private matter.

But there are scads of Catholic schools in Cleveland and, still in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, they had all started accepting non-Catholic students. So, for a family like mine, looking for a private school, it was a fairly easy choice. Kindergarten at St. Benedict’s, 1st grade at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and 2nd-8th at Our Lady of Peace. I’m not sure why so many; I think the Diocese of Cleveland had been closing and consolidating parishes. The tuition bill was footed by my gramma D. She belonged to Eastern Star, the sister sorority of the Freemasons. This was somewhat ironic, because a Catholic can get himself excommunicated for affiliating himself with the Freemasons.

OLP apseBy 2nd grade, Our Lady of Peace (OLP) was the most gorgeous church I had ever seen. It had a baldaquin atop marble pillars. Beneath that was a bronze tabernacle, upon which sat two angel figures face to face, like the Ark of the Covenant. A realistic crucifix seemed to float in air between baldaquin and tabernacle, a grim reminder of the sacrifice required to expiate mankind's sinful nature. Its apse contained a vaulted ceiling on which a mosaic depicted angels dancing around a throne where sat the Madonna and Child in a field of azure strewn with stars. It was beautiful to behold, and for a seven-year-old like me, it fixed the imagination upon the transcendent.

In 2nd grade, most Catholic kids were making their first communion. The boys who made their first communion would eventually be allowed to serve as altar boys. These boys would partake in the strange and mystical rituals of the Catholic Mass beneath that azure vault. Garbed in scarlet cassock and white surplice, they would perform the mysterious tasks of the liturgical rites. The pomp, the circumstance, the occasional magic word in Latin thrown in for good measure. I was jealous, and I wanted in; and that meant, I would have to become a Roman Catholic.

After speaking with my parents, the pastor, Fr. Zepp, was uncertain if a Methodist baptism was valid. At least that’s what he said. So, he performed a special Mass to cover both my baptism and first communion. All for me, and me alone. I remember quite a number of parishioners showing up for this event, which would have been done during the course of a regular Sunday Mass. So, I was the star of the show, the center of all that pageantry. And, with the Blessed Virgin staring down as a witness, the first step of my plan to become an altar boy was completed.

I had learned a couple of things about that day much later in life. First of all, a Methodist baptism meets the requirements for what the Catholic Church would regard as a valid baptism. Consequently, I had been baptized twice, and had two sets of godparents. I can’t see how Fr. Zepp didn’t know this; I had learned it by high school. I suspect he didn't want to be certain I had a proper baptism so much as he wanted to make a show of me: come one, come all, see the amazing son of apostates return to the One True Faith! Religions love to parade their converts about, don’t they?

I didn’t learn the other thing about that day until I was in college. I was going to Borromeo, a now defunct seminary college. I was still in love with the Catholic rites, the mysteries of faith, and the eye-appealing architecture, and my plan was to carry that love to its logical conclusion: the Catholic priesthood. That’s when someone, I forget who, had told me about the “prophecy”. Apparently the nuns of OLP, the ones who witnessed the spectacle of my conversion (if a seven-year-old can be said to have a conversion), regarded it as an omen. They regarded it a miracle that someone so young would embrace the Mother Church, the one true body of Christ on Earth. Such a miracle betokened one of two things: either I would die in childhood, or I would grow up and become a priest.

Whoever told me about this prophecy seemed to believe in it, and was excited that it would come true since, although I failed to die young, I was in the seminary studying to be a priest. She seemed quite happy that prophecies could come true. However, I was quite disturbed. For some reason, I resented that the nuns should say such a thing; I resented that they thought God had such a narrow path set out for me. I had never thought about the implications of prophecy before. But if prophecies come true, can there be such a thing as free will? I wasn’t sure, but I felt like I had to prove the nuns, if not God himself, wrong. From that moment I knew that I most emphatically would not, could not, become a priest.