Saturday, September 12, 2015

Atheism 101 - An Interview with an Atheist

If you are an atheist, you often hear the following in conversations with theists.
Atheists believe there is no God. For atheists, that there is no God is a fact. 
Atheism is also a belief. Atheism is just as much a religion as any other. 
If there is no God, then anything goes! Atheists are immoral!
Did this universe just pop into existence from nothing?
In this blog post, I take (leading) questions from an imaginary theist friend and answer them. Note that this post focuses on where atheists stand rather than comprehensively arguing for atheism.

What is atheism?
Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God(s).
Don't atheists believe that there is no God?
Atheists don't see sufficient evidence or reason to believe in deities. Hence a lack of belief.
But isn't that Agnosticism?
Agnosticism and atheism deal with two orthogonal issues - knowledge and belief. An agnostic is one who claims insufficient knowledge. So, a person could believe in God and still take the position of agnosticism - belief in spite of insufficient knowledge. Or not believe because of insufficient knowledge. Or claim sufficient knowledge for belief or non-belief.
But isn't the dictionary meaning "the ​belief that ​God does not ​exist"?
Yes, traditionally atheism has been defined as the belief that God does not exist. Some dictionaries do define it so (Cambridge Dictionaries OnlineOxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). Some provide both the definitions (Merriam-Webster, Oxford Dictionaries). 
The way I defined it, as an absence of belief is how modern atheists define it. The word atheist originates from the Greek word 'atheos', which simply means 'without theos' (god). This reflects how we use it today.
You seem to stop short of saying outright that there is no god. Why?
Very good question. I strongly suspect there is no God. So, while I am comfortable in saying that there is no God or gods, I certainly allow for the possibility that I might be wrong. Most reasonable atheists do (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins)!
Why do atheists not believe in God?
Let me explain briefly, why I don't believe.
Over the history of humankind, we have worshipped many gods, many of whom we accept today as imaginary - Osiris, Zeus, Ahura Mazda... There are several religions that flourish today, each with their own gods. The fact is, none of these gods have any credible evidence. None of the claims have substance. This is true of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Theists often make claims of prayers being answered, of illnesses being cured, of visions of God, of trips to heaven. None of these claims have ever been substantiated.
The religions often contradict each other. A feature of modern monotheistic religions is insisting that their God is the only true one. Christians do not believe in the gods of Hinduism, Jews do not believe in the Holy Trinity. Atheists just go one step further. They don't believe in any of the gods.
When pushed for evidence, the god-hypothesis is usually tweaked until it tends to resemble an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Deism is an example where supernatural intervention by God is discarded and a creator God who largely remains aloof is posited. Alternatively, God is said to work in mysterious way. God is untestable. Anything that will accommodate God's deafening silence. A God who we can not perceive is indistinguishable from an imaginary one!
The universe seems to work in ways that does not suggest there is a benevolent deity watching over us. There is too much pain and suffering and no noticeable answers to prayers. Nature simply does not care about our feelings. This is strong evidence that there is no benevolent deity.
Depending on who you ask, the definition of God is quite fluid varying from vague ideas like 'life force', 'love', 'unknowable', 'the universe',  to  Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Krishna... Falsifying something that is ill defined is a fools errand. Hence, atheists respond with, "your hypothesis, you substantiate it".
But then, you can't prove that there is no god!
Sure. Try the thought exercise of disproving Santa Claus, especially a Santa that works in mysterious ways and can not be tested! 
The best we can do is to look at the evidence and see what we can infer from it. Atheists conclude from the evidence we have that the god-hypothesis holds no water.
However, this conclusion is provisional. But unless new evidence or new arguments emerge, disbelief in God is our position.
Isn't your atheism a belief a religion in itself?
A lack of belief is neither a belief nor a religion. Just like not collecting stamps is not a hobby.
If everything in this world evolved naturally, who created nature? How could it all have come from nothing?
Well, to that I say, if God created everything, who created God? Is there a God-God who created God? If so who created God-God? This leads to an infinite regress. We have theologians who go through mental gymnastics to get out of this and just try to define God as "uncreated". They imagine that such an imaginary construct constitutes evidence.
The origin of this universe is something scientist are still studying. We don't know for sure if there was a beginning. We do not know if ours is the only universe. None of what science has established so far as facts requires us to posit a God.
So, if there is no God, then anything goes! Is that what you want?
Well, two points. Firstly, just because you don't like the conclusion does not make the conclusion invalid. Secondly, we are social animals. We have evolved to live together, abide by rules. We can be moral without God. Scandinavian countries that are highly non-religious score very high on the happiness index and are relatively quite peaceful societies. Surely, this wouldn't be the case if atheists were immoral beings.
It is just that our morality is not defined by or based on a religion or a holy book like the Quran or the Bible (thank goodness!).
Theists often are taught morality in tandem with religion. They are taught to be moral because God wants them to be moral. For someone who has always lived with this mind set, it is probably natural to think that if you take God out of the equation, then all morality goes away too.
What if you are wrong? Aren't you afraid of going to hell?
Atheists think that hell is an imaginary place for the same reasons that they think god is an imaginary being. People are not, in general, afraid of imaginary gods or imaginary places.
But what if you are wrong? Is it not better to just bet on God?
Sure, this is what is famously called "Pascal's wager". Firstly, if I do not believe, I can't just force myself to believe. Acting as if I believe is unlikely to fool a God! This is essentially the only intellectually honest option for me. 
Also, this wager implies that there are just two options. But in reality there are a multitude of options. If the Islamic God is the real one and you place your bets on Jesus, you are going to the Islamic hell. If you choose Allah, you are in trouble if the Christian trinity turns out to be the real deal. And so on.
If you don't believe, what do you have to live for?
Atheists believe they have one life. We should all try to live it to the fullest. We live for our family and friends. We live to have fun. Books, movies, vacations, good food, family time, friends, sex! 
We have everything to live for and nothing to die for!
Edited and updated on 18-Sept-2015 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Science vs Religion

In a social group that I am part of, we had a science vs religion debate. Here are a few points that were raised.
  • Humans can use science just as much as religion to spew venom.
  • Religion causes more harm than good. However, we can't attribute all the ills done in the name of religion, to it. If not for religion, in most cases people would just use another tool.
  • Science is the perpetrator of more ills now, than religion.
The assertion seemed to be that science and religion are equally good or bad. I wanted to address that here.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that yes, we can use science for good and bad. The fruits of science, the nuclear bomb for instance, are a testament to how science can be wielded to cause evil. Yes, religion can also be wielded for good (e.g., religious charities) and bad (e.g., crusades, 9/11).

Secondly, there are political aspects to religious wars. Human greed for power and wealth is certainly a cause. However, religion does not get a free pass.

I'd think these are not controversial points.

What I take issue with is equating science with religion as if to say they are equally good or bad. The suggestion seems to be that, somehow one justifies or exonerates the other. This is a fallacious argument. Even if science were purely evil, religion does not get a free pass. If religion is bad, if it causes evil, we should try to reform it or get rid of it. One does not justify the other.

The comparison between science and religion is also an invalid one. The argument against religion is not just that it causes evil. The argument against religion is multi-pronged.

  1. The primary argument is that it makes fallacious claims about this universe. It makes assertions that cannot be demonstrated or justified. It is demonstrably false (e.g., the claim that prayer works) or unfalsifiable (e.g., god cannot be tested, god does not interfere in this universe).
  2. Even when religious beliefs and dogmatic requirements are well intentioned, and they often are, the baggage they come with taints then. We do not need bad reasons to do good. And to reiterate, bad reasons come with bad baggage. An example - catholic charities in Africa do much good. Yet they refuse to side with condoms and birth control and are culpable for exacerbating the spread of HIV and AIDS.
  3. We can do good, we can be charitable, we can love our neighbors, all without needing a religious dogma mandating that we do. The Scandinavian countries are a testament to this.

In short, religion is false and unnecessary for a healthy society. The more we reform religion to shed its baggage and its fallacious claims, the more it looks like, well, humanism and atheism.

Now let's turn to science. The knowledge of the universe that science gives us can indeed be used for good and bad. However, the similarity with religion ends there. Without the rise of modern science, we would be left behind in the middle ages or worse the stone age. Are we arguing that we are better off staying in the middle ages?

Science itself is a tool and is neutral. Science does not have a mind of its own. It does not force or coerce us to do good or evil. What it is used for is entirely in the hands of the one wielding it.

Science, unlike religion, is a tool for better understanding the universe. It is not false. While it is often wrong, it is self correcting. Again, unlike religion.

Science is why the society we live in has made progress, to a great extent conquered disease, and eradicated famine.

If we remove religion and religious dogma from our lives, we still can live healthy, peaceful, ethical and happy lives. We can live without fear and superstition.

If on the other hand, we remove science, we cannot overcome disease and poverty. Our evolving ethics is informed by science (e.g., homosexuality is a natural human expression and is not harmful) and we are all better off thanks to that.

In other words, science is nothing like religion and the comparison just does not hold. We need one; we need to move away from the other.

  1. I have made a series of assertions in this post without rigorously defending then so that this post is not too long. But I believe each of these are quite defensible.
  2. The term religion is used quite broadly to include belief systems that refer to the supernatural.

Friday, June 27, 2014

On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt

For the Historicity-of-Jesus debate enthusiasts:

Richard Carrier's long awaited book "On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt" is now available on Amazon! It is also available for order from the publisher
Sheffield Phoenix Press.

I will be collecting reviews of the book here.
Carrier will be collecting links to his responses here.

Let me know of any reviews not listed here, via comments.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Ehrman - Carrier Spat - Round 2?

Ehrman seems to be revisiting the "ill-tempered Richard Carrier's review".

Ehrman revisits his point about not having any Roman references to Pontius Pilate. Here is what Ehrman actually wrote (on Huffington Post):
"It is true that Jesus is not mentioned in any Roman sources of his day. That should hardly count against his existence, however, since these same sources mention scarcely anyone from his time and place. Not even the famous Jewish historian, Josephus, or even more notably, the most powerful and important figure of his day, Pontius Pilate."
However, in Ehrman's latest retelling of this spat, 'Roman sources" become "any (non-Christian/non-Jewish) pagan sources". He seems to be forgetting that Carrier referenced this point when reviewing his Huffington Post article, not his book.[See update below.] Ehrman writes:
"The following is in reference to my point that we do not have any references to Pontius Pilate in any (non-Christian/non-Jewish) pagan sources of the first century".
I am getting some popcorn!

Update: It looks like Ehrman does clarify in his blogpost that he is aware that Carrier was reviewing his Huffington Post article. As mentioned on the Biblical Criticism & History Forum, here is what he wrote:
Now to be fair to Carrier, his comment was posted on his blog about a short piece that I wrote for the Huffington Post. In that (very!) condensed version of my views, I pointed out that Pontius Pilate is not mentioned in any “Roman sources of his day.” This sent Carrier ballistic: we have the inscription! We have Philo! We have Josephus! Ehrman is an idiot! But if he had simply waited to read my book before blasting off at me, he would have seen what I meant
Ehrman seems to be agreeing that he made a mistake (without calling it one). Perhaps, Carrier should have pointed that out with a smile! :)

[Disclaimer: I am not a subscriber of Ehrman's blog. So, I have only read the teaser.]

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Catholic Hell

Where is the Hell and what can we expect when we get there? What does the catholic church teach us about the hell? Here are your answers, courtesy, the Eternal Word Television Network.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Adam, Eve, the Original Sin and the Catholic Church

If you (like me) move in liberal Catholic circles, you have quite possibly heard the refrain that the Genesis when properly understood, is not in conflict with science. The creation myth that we see in the chapter of Genesis, for instance, is to be understood as a myth, an allegory - a story told to teach us that God created us. It is only people who misunderstand the real purpose who interpret it literally. The catholic church's teaching is quite consistent with evolution and science.

At least, that is the claim. Let's see how the claim stands up to scrutiny.

The story of course is that God created Adam and Eve the man and woman on this earth. All of us are decedents of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve disobeyed God's command and were banished from the Garden of Eden. This was the "original sin" which the Catholic Church teaches us, is passed on to all of us at birth.

The Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus in his work, "Antiquities of the Jews" (93 or 94 AD) recounts the history of the Jewish people up to the Jewish War. He starts with Adam and Eve and recounts the history as in the Hebrew Bible. Josephus was no Christian but he seems to have taken the Adam and Eve story quite literally.

St. Paul (writing around 50 AD, probably) considers Adam, the "First Adam" and Christ to be the "Last Adam". He has no issues with taking literally, the story of the first parents and the original sin. Here is what he says for instance in Romans 5:12-14,
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned. To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.
Augustine of Hippo (354 - 430) in "The Literal Meaning of Genesis" and his other works makes it clear that the creation account can not be taken completely literally. For God to say "let there be light" at the beginning of creation makes no sense, for instance. While Augustine could look for allegorical meanings, he clearly inferred a literal Adam and Eve.

The Council of Trent (fifth session, 1545–47) in its decree concerning the Original Sin, insisted on a literal Adam and the original sin. Here is a sample.
If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.
The Council of Trent's decree on justification which is considered nothing less than an infallible extraordinary conciliar decree has this to say:
The holy council declares first, that for a correct and clear understanding of the doctrine of justification, it is necessary that each one recognize and confess that since all men had lost innocence in the prevarication of Adam, having become unclean, and, as the Apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as has been set forth in the decree on original sin, they were so far the servants of sin and under the power of the devil and of death, that not only the Gentiles by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated or to rise therefrom, though free will, weakened as it was in its powers and downward bent, was by no means extinguished in them.
At the First Vatican Council (1869-1870), Pope Pius IX on his way to declaring  papal infallibility, had this to say.
I embrace and accept the whole and every part of what was defined and declared by the holy Council of Trent concerning original sin and justification.
The encyclical "Humani Generis" of Pope Pius XII (1950):
For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
Yet, Pope John Paul II in his "Message To The Pontifical Academy Of Sciences: On Evolution" (1996) said,
In his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), my predecessor Pius XII has already affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.
Was the pope reading a different encyclical, one wonders. The Pope, in this message also goes on to say:
Pius XII underlined the essential point: if the origin of the human body comes through living matter which existed previously, the spiritual soul is created directly by God. (Humani Generis)
As a result, the theories of evolution which, because of the philosophies which inspire them, regard the spirit either as emerging from the forces of living matter, or as a simple epiphenomenon of that matter, are incompatible with the truth about man. They are therefore unable to serve as the basis for the dignity of the human person.
This assertion, rather than showing Catholic theology to be consistent with the theory of evolution instead suggests that they are rather inconsistent.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (as it reads today) states:
The first man was not only created good, but was also established in friendship with his Creator and in harmony with himself and with the creation around him, in a state that would be surpassed only by the glory of the new creation in Christ.
The Church, interpreting the symbolism of biblical language in an authentic way, in the light of the New Testament and Tradition, teaches that our first parents, Adam and Eve, were constituted in an original "state of holiness and justice". This grace of original holiness was "to share in. . .divine life".
The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the "reverse side" of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ. The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.
While Catholics may not take all of the Bible to be literally true, while they have since the beginning of their religion seen allegory in some of the passages, the orthodox view has been to take Adam and Eve to be literally the first humans on this earth. To say otherwise is a massive rewrite of history.

The Catholic romance with the theory of evolution is a very recent phenomenon. And as we see in what the Popes in the last century have said about it, this romance has been a very bumpy one.

The theory of evolution tells us that humans evolved from more primitive primates such as the homo erectus over a period of time. There is no single point at which homo erectus turned into homo sapiens. There is no single parent, no single point to grow a soul and no single point at which the original sin could be committed. Without the original sin, the theology behind the sacrifice of Christ is called into question. Catholic theology is, most certainly in conflict with the theory of evolution.

More importantly, Catholic theology over the centuries, as we have seen, considered Adam and Eve to be the literal first humans as revealed by the Bible. To say otherwise is simply, ignorance of Catholic history!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Who am I to judge?

Pope Francis set off a storm a few days ago. Addressing journalists aboard a flight from Rio de Janeiro on July 28, the Pope had some kind words for the gay people. He declared, “Who am I to judge them?

Progressive Catholics who are already awestruck by this Pontiff were left gasping for breath. Finally, we see some acceptance of the gay community!

Unfortunately, that is not the case. Let's take a look at what the Pope actually said.
When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers.
The Church's teaching, in the recent past at least, has been that homosexuality is not a sin. Homosexual sex, however, is indeed a sin. Any sexual activity outside of a marriage between a man and a woman are sinful as well. Within a marriage, any sexual activity that excludes procreation is also sinful. In plain terms, using condoms is sinful.

Nothing has changed here. NOTHING. Pope Francis is merely deferring to his boss in heaven (a.k.a God) to do the judging. The Church he heads just tells us what the rules are. And make no mistake, the rules have not changed!

Pope Francis's predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI had a harsher way of stating things. Back in 1986, as the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he co-wrote that even the homosexual inclination should be seen as an objective disorder. Here is what he wrote:
Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
The Pope has not disavowed this pronouncement. But he has promised not to judge!

The Pope who does not judge was not too scared to judge back in 2010. The Pope (Cardinal Bergoglio, then) spoke forcefully against same-sex marriage and adoption of children by same sex couples in Argentina. Here is what he said:
“Let us not be naive: this is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
While the Pope may have declined to judge, history may not be so merciful!