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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Survey: Atheists, Agnostics Most Knowledgeable About Religion

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says

I find this ironic on some levels, but my own experience bears this out.

One thing I don't mean to suggest here is "religious = uneducated/unintelligent." (I'm not saying you guys are saying that, I'm just making my own position clear.) I've known a good many smart and thoughtful people that practiced a faith, either casually or devoutly. I could discuss (or debate) points of theology with them because they knew their faith well, and sometimes were familiar with other religions.

As someone that has felt faith in his life, it's not a matter of being able to logically prove or justify that sort of belief. Faith isn't about raw knowledge, it's about how being hooked into a higher state of consciousness or being makes you feel. It's an emotional high of sorts, but that doesn't quite describe the experience of faith. It's hard to explain to someone that hasn't felt that, and it's certainly not my goal to indoctrinate anyone so they can "get it." My revelations, such as they are, are personal, and would have no relevance to anyone else.

By being "beyond logic," one can say faith "illogical," and by technical definition that's accurate. But it suggest that being religious requires one to live in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Now, for some people, that's pretty spot-on. But for many it's not. Faith and reason aren't mutually exclusive. Some people choose to develop one aspect of themselves while neglecting others. Reason and exist can exist side-by-side in the same person, because verifiably they often do.

What dismays me is how little many believers actually know about their own religions. It makes a certain amount of sense that a believer might not know a lot about other belief systems, but for people to invest their souls and lives in something they barely understand is almost inexcusable to me. The only way that makes sense is if they have a learning disability, are illiterate and can't read their holy texts, or are brought up in an isolated and oppressive religious community where alternate interpretations are not tolerated. Because if I'm going to invest that much of me in a religion, you'd better believe I'm going to learn as much about it as I can. I owe that much to myself, and also to whatever god or forces I believe in -- what need would my patron have of an uninformed follower, one that can quote homilies but can't be bothered to learn doctrine? To exist in a bubble of faith and ignorance doesn't do oneself or one's faith justice. Yet sadly that's the case for many.

I do have theories on why this might be the case. Be prepared, what I'm going to say isn't very flattering to a lot of people.

There's a certain stigma that accompanies intellectuals and education in this country, especially on the religious right. And it's easy to chalk this up to reactionary stupid people... a little too easy. Because I think, in many cases, we have intellectual elitism to blame: the attitude that we're better than those of lesser education, and that we can dismiss whatever they say. Hell, I'm often guilty of it myself. I believe the roots of this snobbery lay in class conflicts, as the educated typically (but certainly not always) have more money; this used to be the case more often than it is now, but old habits and attitudes die hard. When one is looked down upon by people -- as we do the evangelical redneck with little educational grounding in the Bible -- one begin to resent this treatment and look for ways to feel superior to the elitists. The religious claim moral superiority, in spades, and develop negative associations with intellectualism. They choose not to take a scholar's approach to their faith (consciously or not), as they don't want to emulate those arrogant snobs in tweed jackets or liberal TV pundits that so cleverly deconstruct what they believe is sacred. They find our Bill Mahers and Janeane Garofalos and every bit as abrasive as we find their Sarah Palins and Jerry Falwells. We quote scripture at them to discredit them, they quote it at us to brand us as faith-killing jerks, and no one really listens to anyone.

This is just my theory, of course, but it seems to pan out. Certainly, some people are just intellectually lazy and become mentally weak -- much like my own physical laziness has led to my being out of shape. There's no helping these people. But I think it's a mistake to discount all religious backlash against educated people as fundies being willfully stupid. Perhaps some of the blame lay at our own feet. Maybe if we self-proclaimed theologians made more attempts to reach out to the religious and find common ground with them, we would find it. That may not bear fruit, but what we're doing only alienates them. Trying something different can't hurt.

Of course, that would require us to climb off our high horses and meet them as equals, to offer the olive branch while not girded with the armor of intellectual smugness. Hard, isn't it? I'll be the first to admit, I'm often quite comfortable on my own horse. Especially when it seems the opposition is similarly mounted. So what do we value, honestly: accord or ego? Whatever we choose, that will help set the tone for further interaction.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Environmental Alarmists: You're Not Helping the Cause

Here's a little line I pulled from the following article:

World examines "impossible" goal to halt extinctions

 "The world has made some progress since 2002, such as in expanding protected areas for wildlife. But U.N. studies say extinction rates are running up to 1,000 times higher than those inferred from fossil records in the worst crisis since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago."

I hate to play Devil's Advocate here: I'm invested in environmental causes as well, and I'm not making light of the very real and detrimental impact mankind is having on the ecosystem. But as someone that values fact and solid science over histrionics I kinda have to point this out...

Our fossil records have given us a wealth of information, and I personally find paleontology fascinating. But on the whole, they aren't very detailed at all. We're not even seeing 1% of the animals that ever existed. We can look at fossils of trilobites, stegosaurs and the like, but with us missing so much of the record it's very difficult to place these species into context. We can infer what role a creature or plant served in the ecosystem based on analysis of its features (it's clear stegosaurs weren't carnivores, for example), but we almost never get to see anything in the way of internal organs which can be vital in deciphering what these organisms were actually like. Nature throws us curve balls all the time, and it takes a very sophisticated eye to catch some of them. But there's not enough left to see in extinct animals to catch those, see? And without a detailed analysis of all the organisms that existed in a given time and location -- not just megafauna, but plants, insects, bacteria, and other subtle things that are vital to the ecosystem -- we can only make broad inferences about what an ecosystem was like and what organisms that comprised it might have done. Often we have to fill in gaps with educated guesses ("This was a herbivore, so there had to have been plants around")... filling in pieces of great puzzles most of whose pieces are long gone. Since most organisms that have ever existed have left us absolutely no trace of their existence, we can't really determine at what rate they went extinct. (I'd make an exception for the K-T Event, in which a great number of plants and animals went extinct; however, the KTE can't be considered typical of extinctions.)

So statements like "Extinction rates are running up to 1,000 times higher than those inferred from fossil records" sound like the sort of alarmist pseudo-science people tend to throw out all the time. For me to buy this I'd have to see strong evidence for it, and from what I've seen it just isn't there. And just as I roll my eyes at such declarations, there are a double handful of skeptics out there that know enough science to rip such assertions to shreds.... and with a lot more relish than I have. This doesn't do anything to help the environmental movement. But it does give opponents ammunition to use against it, and makes environmentalists look like left-wing fringers and worryworts relying on faulty science. It doesn't matter if this is the case or not, if that's how we're perceived that's bad for us. That's why we have to ground our assertions in hard science and verifiable fact, things not so easily dismissed.

And, again, I'm not some pundit trying to deny or downplay humanity's impact on the ecosystem. But isn't it enough to simply point out the facts of what we're doing, instead of comparing current trends to almost entirely theoretical models of past extinctions?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What's the Goddamned Problem?

I wonder how many people that complain about people "taking God's name in vain" realize that "God" is their deity's name the same way "Person" is their own name?

What do I mean? God is a title, not a proper noun. Same with Lord and even Christ; all are titles, not names. Similarly, "The President" is not Obama's name, even when capitalized; it's a formal title and describes what he does, but that title can be applied to 43 other people in our Nation's history and isn't unique to him. The same basic principle applies to "god."

 The Biblical god's actual name is YHWH, or "Yahweh" in English. (And "Jehova" would be pronounced a lot like "Yahweh," not like "juh-HOE-vuh"; there is no J in the Hebrew alphabet) We know this because the "God" of the Christians is the god of the Jews. In the Torah (the original Old Testament, unadulterated and pre-translated), Exodus 3:14 reads: "I AM THAT I AM/ Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you/ YHWH God of your fathers/ this is my name for ever." This distinguish the god of the Israelites from all the other gods worshiped in and around the Middle East during that time. There are other names for YHWH too (like Elohim and Ehyeh), but "YHWH" seems to be the default name of the Judeo-Christian god. "Jesus" is an example of a proper name... though it's clearly a Roman name (since it has a J); Yeshua was most likely his given Hebrew name.

As an aside, the word "god" is actually Germanic in origin, a gender-neuter term to describe any deity. (This means the word "goddess" is superfluous.) So anyone calling YHWH "God" is actually giving unintentional homage to the Germanic pagans.

If you're talking about an entity above and beyond the Christian god, a sort of transcendent super-deity and Creator, the proper name "God" still doesn't apply very well... though it can work as a title. What need would the Creator (which is also a title and not a name) have for a name? Naming is a human thing, probably unique to our species. Nouns (proper or not) are a side effect of our having developed language, and are quite possibly the foundation of language itself. We need names because there are lots of other people and objects out there, and it's very close to impossible to communicate or enjoy complex reason without nouns. Our ancestors wouldn't have gotten far without developing grunts for "oh shit, snake!", "no eat poison berries!", "mammoth over there!" and what-have-you. But if there's just one Creator (and I'm inclined to believe that), then there's no need to it to have a name at all -- there is only one Creator, and the Creator just is.

What confuses and concerns me is that Christians still resist using "Yahweh," and insist on referring to their deity as the capitalized generic title. The true name of their demigod messiah is also largely unknown, and "Jesus" is used instead. I can understand the Roman Empire did that to "de-Hebrewfy" the god they adopted from the Jews, but why are people still doing that now? Is there still that much Antisemitism in Christianity? Or is it that not many Christians are educated about this? I know if I were staking my eternal salvation on a faith you better believe I'd try to learn as much about it as I could, and these naming inaccuracies seem like a really big things to miss.
 So, in short: Christians, when someone says "goddamn!" or some variation thereof, he or she isn't taking your god's name in vain, as it's been clearly established that "god" isn't a name at all. Same with "Christ almighty!", "lordy lordy" and so on. I could give you some actual examples of taking your god's name in vain... but my purpose here is to illuminate, not offend.