Friday, May 27, 2005

Living Biblically

We hear from the pious people who are in charge of the country today that we should live our lives according to the wisdom given to us in the Bible. We are told that many of the most important questions that decided that national election in 2004 had to do with moral values, specifically homosexuality, and the sanctity of life.

The Bible does indeed condemn homosexuality, at least male homosexuality, although it is silent on female homosexuality. The Bible says specifically that men who have sex with men should be put to death. That seems inconsistent with the sanctity of human life, but when rules conflict, something has to give, I suppose. The Bible also says that people who do work on the Sabbath must be stoned to death.

The Bible is totally silent on abortion, although abortion was widely practiced in the ancient world. Indeed, the pagan Hippocrates maintained that physicians should not provide abortifacients, but for whatever reason, God never mentioned anything about it. (Some people maintain that a passage in Deuteronomy specifies a ceremony for inducing abortion in case a woman has been adulterous, but I'm not convinced by that interpretation. Certainly God never says anything against abortion.)

But, if we are going to live Biblically, according to the wisdom God has given us in the Bible, then we certainly ought to wage war according to God's commands. And in Deuteronomy 20, he tells us exactly how to go about it.

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the LORD your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.

19 When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them? 20 However, you may cut down trees that you know are not fruit trees and use them to build siege works until the city at war with you falls.

So it is clear what the "sanctity of life" refers to: the life of fruit trees. According to Almighty God, it is our duty to slaughter human beings. I appreciate the opportunity to make that clarification.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Credo -- but first, the labelling problem

Our good friend Jane Boatler wants to know why atheists proselytize -- too kind to point out explicitly that this seems a bit inconsistent, as we don't seem to like it when religious people do it.

I think the question may be a bit unfair. People generally try to persuade others to their point of view, and civil debate is a normal, and usually enjoyable, feature of everyday social conversation. Atheists do not, as far as I know, go from door to door or stand at the train station handing out tracts, we don't post quotations from Robert Green Ingersoll or Richard Dawkins in the courthouse, and we don't insist on having the latest findings in cosmology read aloud before every session of Congress. We engage people in discussion on a purely voluntary basis.

That said, it is about time I get upfront and down and dirty with exactly what the heck I do believe. Before I do, however, I need to deal with this difficult label issue. People like me who don't belong to an organized body of belief usually feel that none of the very limited number of available categorical names quite fits us or adequately represents us. It is true that I am quite certain that the entity called God by the various major religions does not exist. (And I note that having written that, I have not been struck by lightning.) However, my beliefs are not centered on that negative proposition. That's just a conclusion, not a central principle.

Some people call themselves realists, skeptics, secular humanists. I'll accept all of those but they require explanation. Also, there aren't any specific criteria for joining any of those groups, so there are definitely people who call themselves by those names who don't agree with me about one or another fundamental question. Humanism, in particular, implies not just certain beliefs about the nature of reality but also a set of values. Actually, some people call themselves humanists because of the values, people whose metaphysical beliefs are quite different from mine.

There was an ill-conceived and ill-received proposition published in Free Inquiry a while back that people like me ought to start calling themselves "The Brights." Since this obviously implies that other people must be "The Dullards" or "The Dimwits," it was not exactly the best public relations idea. And I certainly do not agree with either the implication or the aesthetics of the term.

So I'm going to say that I am a Realist and a Humanist. Shortly, I'll say what those words mean to me and how I go about deciding what to believe. Meanwhile, does anybody care to respond to these labels? What do they mean to you?

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Tax This

if the news is to be believed, and why would anyone question any news, churches are increasingly telling parishioners how to vote, well, technically, the church itself doesn't say much; some human church official does the political work. prior to the recent presidential election some catholic bishops or cardinals told catholic voters that it would be a religious sin/error to vote for kerry. fundamental and evangelical christian voters, we are told, got the official pastoral (if that is the right term) word on the proper vote. now some pastor pretending to be a real christian has drummed democrats out of his congregation, although maybe they would be allowed to sit in the rear if they pledged to vote republican.

tell me again why churches don't pay property tax? "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;......" so why is the subsidy of a tax break not supporting religion? aren't there rules about tax-exempt businesses--excuse me---institutions not engaging in politics? i think that everyone should be able to play politics and everyone should pay taxes. churches benefit from the infrastructure of roads and other publicly funded services like police and fire protection as much as private businesses and corporations and should pay their share. oops. i forgot that corporations are mostly avoiding taxes now.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

interesting disagreements

so there i was the other day, maybe yesterday, reading what pz myers was up to over at pharyngula. he posted a recommendation to read an interview with noted atheist biologist richard dawkins at salon. of course there were comments. so i read them. my, my. almost every one of the commenters self-identified as an atheist, and yet some got quite testy with each other. what's up with that, you may ask. i won't try to describe the various positions. go read them.

i mention this minor contretemps (hoping i'm not offering insult to any of the participants with that descriptor) because i was a bit surprised at the back and forth between people who were really on the same side of the bigger picture. so if those who do not accept on faith the existence of a deity, who see no evidence of such, can disagree so much about the politics of their non-belief it is no wonder to me that believers can have even more widely divergent views of what it is that they believe in. of course, from my point of view that there is no evidence for the existence of a personal deity it seems obvious that every believer necessarily has a unique, subjective notion of god.

fundamentalists in any religion think that their notion of what god wants us to do is the only correct version and should be imposed on everyone. there is variance in the method of imposition and the violence allowed, or required, to bring about such rule, but the rest of us had better obey one way or another. so it behooves the rest of us, believers or not, to watch out for our freedom. digby over at hullabaloo has some chilling words by Fritz Stern about the misuse of christianity by the nazis in pre-wwII in germany. here is a bit of his acceptance speech upon receiving the Leo Baeck Medal.

Twenty years ago, I wrote about “National Socialism as Temptation,” about what it was that induced so many Germans to embrace the terrifying specter. There were many reasons, but at the top ranks Hitler himself, a brilliant populist manipulator who insisted and probably believed that Providence had chosen him as Germany’s savior, that he was the instrument of Providence, a leader who was charged with executing a divine mission. God had been drafted into national politics before, but Hitler’s success in fusing racial dogma with a Germanic Christianity was an immensely powerful element in his electoral campaigns. Some people recognized the moral perils of mixing religion and politics, but many more were seduced by it. It was the pseudo-religious transfiguration of politics that largely ensured his success, notably in Protestant areas.

German moderates and German elites underestimated Hitler, assuming that most people would not succumb to his Manichean unreason; they didn’t think that his hatred and mendacity could be taken seriously. They were proven wrong. People were enthralled by the Nazis’ cunning transposition of politics into carefully staged pageantry, into flag-waving martial mass. At solemn moments, the National Socialists would shift from the pseudo-religious invocation of Providence to traditional Christian forms: In his first radio address to the German people, twenty-four hours after coming to power, Hitler declared, “The National Government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. They regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.”

does that last sentence sound familiar?