Reflection

Why I Don't Believe -- or, Remembering the Lessons of Santa 
01-11-2009

Holy Cow!

            When Enkai created the sky and earth, he gave all his cows to his chosen people, the Maasai. It is the sacred duty of the Maasai to look over these god-given cattle, which is why, when they come across another tribe or farmer with cows, they take them back. The Maasai firmly believe this is not theft and that they are absolutely acting both morally and at the behest of god.

    
Here are some photos I took in Tanzania of the Maasai with their cattle.

             Every time I tell this story to someone in this country people invariably laugh at the ridiculousness of such a "primitive" tribal myth that is so blatantly self-serving. My friend, Montana artist Josh Elliott, laughed and quipped, "Well, you know, god gave me all Zorn paintings, but I've had a difficult time convincing the museums of this."


I doubt I'd argue with this Maasai man I painted from Tanzania about his religious beliefs. I find a spear tough to dispute and many religions have used just such an argument.

Another friend found it utterly impossible imagining anyone seriously believing such an outlandish thing at all, no matter how much I assured her that the Maasai see this as an absolute, historical fact. Knowing that my friend was Jewish and had traveled to Israel, I asked her, "Is the Maasai's belief that god gave them all the cows very different than the Bible's claim that god gave the land of Israel to the Jews?" I loved seeing the profound shock, confusion, then dawning of understanding that rippled quickly across my friend's face at the realization that, indeed, it was very similar. What a marvelous thing it is to suddenly see your own beliefs from a new perspective.

According to the Bible, there was the slightly awkward fact that the "Promised" land was already occupied at the time of this deistic gift. God remedied this by commanding the Jews to exterminate the previous inhabitants, including the women and children, despite their never having committed any offense against god's "chosen" people. 

Here's a few quotations below from the Bible. (I've added these after first posting this essay because so many people e-mailed me with protests that there were no such passages in the Bible.) I could have included a dozen more, in fact.

1 Samuel 15:3 - American Standard Version

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not: but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.

Joshua 6 - American Standard Version
21 And they utterly destroyed all that was in the city (Jericho), both man and woman, both young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.

Joshua 8 - American Standard Version
17 And there was not a man left in Ai or Beth-el, that went not out after Israel: and they left the city open, and pursued after Israel.

18 And Jehovah said unto Joshua, Stretch out the javelin that is in thy hand toward Ai; for I will give it into thy hand. And Joshua stretched out the javelin that was in his hand toward the city. 19 And the ambush arose quickly out of their place, and they ran as soon as he had stretched out his hand, and entered into the city, and took it; and they hasted and set the city on fire. 

              Notice in the above passage, that Jehova had Joshua purposely lure the men of the city away until "there was not a man left" in the city and then attacked the defenseless woman and children, even setting the city afire. Isn't the specific targeting of civilians, especially woman and children, our current definition of a terrorist? Is not the purposeful extermination of a people genocide? It kind of makes merely stealing cows seem quaint.

25 And all that fell that day, both of men and women, were twelve thousand, even all the men of Ai. 26 For Joshua drew not back his hand, wherewith he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. 27 Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took for prey unto themselves, according unto the word of Jehovah which he commanded Joshua.

                Joshua 10 - American Standard Version
28 And Joshua took Makkedah on that day, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof: he utterly destroyed them and all the souls that were therein; he left none remaining; and he did to the king of Makkedah as he had done unto the king of Jericho.

29 And Joshua passed from Makkedah, and all Israel with him, unto Libnah, and fought against Libnah: 30 and Jehovah delivered it also, and the king thereof, into the hand of Israel; and he smote it with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein; he left none remaining in it; and he did unto the king thereof as he had done unto the king of Jericho.

40 So Joshua smote all the land, the hill-country, and the South, and the lowland, and the slopes, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but he utterly destroyed all that breathed, as Jehovah, the god of Israel, commanded. 41 And Joshua smote them from Kadesh-barnea even unto Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, even unto Gibeon. 42 And all these kings and their land did Joshua take at one time, because Jehovah, the god of Israel, fought for Israel. 

              For all those Christians who claim the Koran is evil because of its sanction of violence against unbelievers, I have to wonder if they've actually read their own sacred book? Based on the fact that so many people e-mailed me claiming no such passages existed in the Bible when I first posted this essay, I must conclude that many have simply skipped over the Old Testament.

             Many people further say that the New Testament did away with the ways and rules of the Old Testament (especially people who love BLT sandwiches!), while in the very next breath quoting the Old Testament as proof against homosexuality, or insisting the Ten Commandments be errected in front of a government building.
 


Tibetan Buddhists studying their own sacred texts in Lhasa.

One wonders why god didn't give the Jews the land of the Egyptians, who had enslaved them? But even the morality of slavery seems relative in the Bible, since the Old Testament speaks of it as a great evil when the Egyptians practice it against the Jews, but perfectly acceptable when the Jews practice it against others. God gives very specific rules in the Bible on how slavery should be structured by the Israelites; a fact that many churches in this county once used to justify the practice in the United States. Even Jesus himself speaks of it without condemning it, telling slaves they should obey their masters. Don't these beliefs seem at least as equally self-serving as the Maasai's? Don't all religions? 

However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. (Leviticus 25:44-46 NLT)

When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NAB)

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. (Ephesians 6:5 NLT)

"It ain't the parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."
Mark Twain

I have heard many people defend the ancient Israelite's actions because they were merely "following orders" of god. What if god commanded an entire group of people to exterminate every man, woman, and child of another group and take their land now, in modern times? Would you believe the Prophet god choose to deliver this message? Would you participate in the slaughter? If you answer no, then aren't you defying god? This is no hypothetical argument; throughout history people have done just this for exactly this reason and continue to now. Isn't it possible that the writers of the Bible made god a scapegoat for actions they selfishly did all on their own? Dare I suggest that none of the three religions fighting over the Holy Land are right in their divine real estate claims, no more so than the Maasai are in their divine claim of ownership of all the cows of the world?

"I distrust those people who know so well what god wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires."
Susan B. Anthony

Here is an excerpt of the Incas invocation of the sun god that I'm quoting from Hiram Bingham's "Lost City of the Incas" (page 120). "…Oh Sun! Thou who has said let there be Cuzco and Tampu, grant that these children may conquer all other people. We beseech thee that thy children the Incas may conquer all other people. We beseech thee that thy children the Incas may be always conquerors, since it is for this that thou has created them."

The truth is that every religion and every people have such self-serving stories. Cotton Mather is but one example of early ministers of the pre-United States that preached the morality of taking Indian land and lives because of divine sanction. Certainly the Indians also believed god had given them the land. One might argue that the proof of whose god is the real one lies in the outcome of the struggle for the disputed real-estate, though having all the "Guns, Germs, and Steel," as Jared Diamond details in his Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, didn't hurt either. Having god on your side is a great advantage, it seems, and just about everyone in every culture believes with equal fervor that they do.


Here's a farm just a half mile up the road from my house, here, in NC. In the background you can see Hanging Rock State Park, part of the Saura Mountain Range, named for the Saura Indian Tribe who once live here.

 

Irrefutable Logic        

I love living here in rural North Carolina. The landscape is beautiful and the people around us quite wonderful. It is also a very religious area and most of those that travel to other countries do so on "mission trips," a combination of charitable volunteering and proselytizing. One of our friends once returned from such a trip to a Muslim country and was irate at the reception they received in the village they'd traveled to. After being welcomed and thanked for offering to help build a community center, they were asked to please refrain from preaching or handing out Bibles, since the Muslim community might find this offensive. My friend was so angry at the inflexibility of this condition that the entire group ended up leaving and not doing any volunteering at all.


Muslims preparing for Friday worship services outside a Mosque in India.

"What would you have done if Muslims came to your small town in North Carolina and tried converting people to Islam?" I asked.

            The shock on my friend's face was akin to someone seeing a horrible murder committed in front of his very eyes. "Why, we would never allow such a thing! They'd be run out of town, maybe worse."

            "But what's the difference between what the Muslim village did to you and what you'd do to them?" I followed up.

            "It's obvious!" he replied to me with the absolute conviction I've seen over and over throughout the world. "The difference is that our god is real and theirs is false. If we succeed in converting someone, we are saving them from an eternity in Hell, whereas if they succeed in converting someone, they are damning them to Hell."

The logic of this is perfectly sound once you have as a starting point the absolute fact that your god is the one and only true god. As is the morality of the first recorded genocide in history, as conveyed to us in the Bible. As is the stealing of someone else's cow or land, slavery, Holy Crusades, oppression of woman, suicide bombing, etc. When you know for certain that the creator of the universe is commanding you to do something, there is no moral gray area. It is less a matter of morality, an more one of blindly following orders. What god orders is good, by definition, no matter how "immoral" it might seem by rational human standards. 


Here's a very kind Muslim boy and his father at the same Mosque who asked me to take their photo. Despite the impression we get from the ceaseless barrage of negative news about Muslims, let me assure you from first hand experience that they are no different than anyone else in our country. Most are loving, close-knit families, with a small number of fanatics and criminals just as in all societies. Just as you wouldn't label all Americans based on individuals like Timothy McVeigh, neither should Muslims be characterized by their Fundamentalist crazies. 

 

The Education of a Scott      

Many people tell me that I'm no different than religious people, that my views are also a sort of religion in that I'm saying I'm right and all the religious people are wrong, but there's one crucial difference, which I'll get to after a bit of personal history for context.

I know what it's like to be deeply religious since I grew up in a working-class Catholic neighborhood on the outskirts of Chicago. I was educated at the same Catholic Grade School my Mother attended when it was mainly nuns who taught there and was even an alter boy at the church connected to the school. In High School I transitioned to Holy Cross High School with the Jesuits, and didn't have any of the negative experiences one hears so much about these days associated with Catholic churches. There is definitely something comforting being surrounded by a community of people who all agree on the essential facts of the universal order of things.


Tibetan children worshiping with their father in Lhasa.

Like all children across the globe, I believed without question what my parents, priests, and the community told me to. I believed in the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, and god. Catholics don't emphasize reading the Bible, but I love to read and so did read most of it on my own anyway (skimming the interminable rules that no one I knew followed anymore in Leviticus seemed the better part of valor at the time, though I did wonder that god would give such detailed and lengthy instructions only to suspend them so easily later on). I guess this was probably my first mistake, for anyone who has read the Bible from cover to cover will be left with quite a few questions the Nuns and Brothers will never be able to resolve in god's favor. Later in life I came across Thomas Payne's "The Age of Reason," written shortly after the Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States. I wish I would have known about this book in High School since it deals with all the questions I had about the Bible and many that hadn't even occurred to me then.

My other passion is and was history. As I read about the other religions of the world, and especially about the founding and formation of Christianity, my understanding expanded from the sheltered viewpoint of my small neighborhood. I saw my own religious beliefs from the context of an outsider and in comparison to the ever-evolving religious movements that preceded it. The numerous Greek, Egyptian, Persian, and Indian gods who, long before Jesus, had died and been resurrected (many born on December 25th and come back from the dead on Easter) were not something we learned in Religion class.


"At the Foot of the God"  oil, 40" by 32"  Nepal
This is such a typical scene of worship in Nepal that it could have been almost anywhere, though this is actually in a park just outside of Kathmandu. In painting this scene, I had to reflect on how similar people are the world over. In Spain we'd seen people leaving offerings of candles and flowers at the foot of statues of the Virgin. Though the deity and people's dress may change from culture to culture, the actions, hopes and dreams are the same. The exact form of the statue or the particular mythology of the people seem minor differences to me when compared with the great commonality of hopes and myths we share.

Virgin birth, power over water, raising the dead, changing water into wine, and nearly every miracle attested to Jesus had been told by earlier religions over and over. You may already know these facts and have come to a different conclusion than me, but I mention them simply to give a sense of some of the information I learned that made me rethink what I'd been told all my life. If you haven't run across them yet, possibly they'll give you pause as well.

Adonis - pre-2000 BC Virgin birth (by Astarte, whose celebratory festival was called "Eastros"); was called "god the Father" and "god the Son"; killed to save mankind and then resurrected.

  Attis - Frigia Greek, 1200 BC mirraculous birth, killed, buried for three days, resurrected. This god's temple stood on Vatican hill until Christianity became the official religion of Rome.

            Krishna - India 900 BC miraculous birth, star in the east, miracles, resurrected.

            Indra - 725 BC Virgin birth; numerous miracles.

            Dionysus - Greece 500 BC, miracles (water into wine), referred to as "King of Kings," "god's only son," "Alpha and Omega," upon death, resurrected.

            I think you get the idea here. I could go on, since there are over twenty examples of ancient gods and goddesses who were killed and then rose from the dead on the Spring Equinox.  Even if there are quibbles among experts on some individual details, the broader fact of the resurrection of a god in ancient times being extremely common remains a historical fact. I'm not claiming that any of these gods really existed and rose from the dead either, only that the motif itself is very old and common in the area. These stories would have been ones the Greeks and Roman's knew of and believed already in some cases. The audience that the founders of Christianity were trying to convert would have recognized these miracles as the standard proof of divinity.

But don't take my word for this. Here's the words below from early church father, Justin Martyr, in his "First Apology letter to the Emperor Titus," explaining why the new Christian religion wasn't very different than the established Grreek and Roman religions.

Chapter 21. Analogies to the history of Christ
And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.

Chapter 22. Analogies to the sonship of Christ
And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Æsculapius.

So it is apparent from these words that there was nothing new about the idea of a god being born of a virgin, rising from the dead, ascending into heaven, and doing the same miracles that were claimed for Jesus.


Here's a process in the northern deserts of India by villagers to bring offerings to the god, Krishna. Below is the painting that I did from the photos I took that afternoon.


"
Offerings for Krishna" India,  oil,  72" by 102"

Add to this the fact that many of the stories even in the Old Testament were almost identical to pre-existing ones from Egypt and Babylon. Certainly the story of Noah's Arc has dozens of predecessors, but my favorite is from the Epic of Gilgamesh around 2,600 BC, where animals were saved from a flood on an Arc with numerous identical details, even down to the releasing of a dove to find land. Of course it's possible they were both describing the same event and just got the names and other details wrong. One would tend to go with the earlier version, in such a case and, since the Gilgamesh tale was written down at least fifteen hundred years before the Hebrew version, this raises more logical problems that I won't bore you with here. Must stay on track!

Then there's the story of Sargon of Akad around 2200 BC, who was set in a basket in a river to avoid being killed, then rescued and raised by royalty - sound familiar to a story written in the Bible many hundred of years later?

Manou of India, Minos of Crete, and Mises of Egypt all went up mountains, received the law from god, and then came down to give them to the people. Mises even came down with the laws written on stone tablets. Note the similarity of all these names as well as the story to Moses, which, if not proof of anything by itself, continues the suspiciously suggestive thread of facts. I have to wonder if the Bible would be sued for blatant plagiarism if it were written now.  

"Religions are all alike - founded upon fables and mythologies."
Thomas Jefferson

This pattern of repackaging established traditions continued once Christianity became the "official" religion of the Roman Empire and expanded into Europe, expropriating the local people's pagan Holy days, which were based on the movements of the sun, moon, and stars. This is the reason some Catholic Holy days are determined by the Lunar calendar, and others by the solar.  


 Granada, Spain

The Bible doesn't state Jesus' actual birth date, but it definitely wasn't in December; most Biblical scholars agree it was probably sometime in March, at least according to the very limited hints we get from this text. December 25th was chosen as Jesus' birthday because it was already celebrated by the existing pagan religions as the winter Solstice.  

 

God, the Beta Version    

There's a lot of speculation that many of the archetypal themes that are so common with all of these religions come from some earlier, unrecorded mythology based on the movements of celestial bodied. The only real evidence for this is inferential, of course; theorized by looking at the dates and similar themes of ancient religions and trying to match them to something known about astronomy. There is also hard evidence gleaned by so-called archaeoastronomers from ancient monuments left from this era that appear to be built specifically to track the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, Stonehenge being the most famous of these.

None of this has much bearing on the question of the truth of god's existence, but it is interesting to speculate on where these universal religious themes might have originated. Just for interest sake, here is a brief summation of some theories I've seen proposed in various places that seem in the realm of possibility. There are, as with everything, vast amounts of nonsense as well, based on nothing more than wishful thinking and the desire to sell books. Beware of the New Age religions and Astrologers that cloak themselves in psudo-science but are no more fact-based than traditional religion is.

The winter solstice represented the sun's death to the ancients because the sun rose for shorter and shorted periods of time as it approached December 25th. Winter was also the time when crops died and fields became unproductive. After this point the days get progressively longer, forcing back the darkness (death). In Joseph Campbell's many books on comparative religion, he shows very conclusively that the notion of a god dying and being reborn is nearly universal in all agricultural societies. I think it's safe to assume this tradition probably originated with agriculture itself as people's livelihood became dependent on the cycle of fields dying and resurrecting the next spring, all of which is tied to the seasons, which is tied to the calendar, which is tied to the motion of the heavens.

   As Joseph Campbell pointed out so well in his work, hunter gather cultures generally worship the totemic spirits of the animals they hunt (represented in my painting by the deer skull), while cultures based on agriculture tend to worship the death and resurrection of a renewing god or goddess (represented by the stalks of wheat grass that were likely one of the first agricultural products).
    I have been fascinated by many of these themes lately and have been exploring these ideas visually in my art of late, which is a departure from the more literal paintings I've done in the past. I especially love the juxtaposition of elements that one wouldn't normally put together, such as the animal skull with a young girl. One is at the beginning of life and the other at the end and yet both are beautiful in their own way. Both cause one to think about issues such as life, death, religion, etc. At least that is my hope.

The sun (Light of the World, Slayer of Darkness, etc.) is obviously the most important of all, so it becomes the central figure. In agriculture, it is extremely crucial to keep track of days to know when to plant the crop. We take such things for granted now, but it is very easy to loose track of time without a calendar and developing one must have been a monumental achievement. Consider how you would determine with precision what the shortest and longest days of the year were without a calendar or even a watch. Such knowledge was extremely valuable. Imagine the wonder when you finally figured out that Orion's Belt aligned with Sirius and pointed to the very spot where the sun would rise (ressurrect from it's nightly death).

During the winter, night (death) seems to be winning the battle as its durration lengthens and the day lessens. But on that one day of the year when night is longest, the embattled sun rises from the matt like Rocky Balboa for the comback to grow stronger each day and finally triump over the darkness and bring the resurrection of spring and summer harvests. Here is a miracle to anticipate and celebrate annually. Surely the ancients must have thought something like this could not be accidental.

And so one might see the symbology of the dead Jesus coming out of the tomb and ascending into heaven as the same as the rising sun ascending ito the sky. Many religions have such gods emerging from the tomb (usually at sun-rise) and themselves ascending into heaven after conquering death.


Agriculture and the resurrected god are invariably bound together.

This transition to agriculture predates Jesus by many millennia, as can be seen by all the gods who represent the same themes. As Campbell noted, hunting and gathering cultures worship animal totems instead, as this was the source of their nourishment. Once humans moved to agriculture, the sun, the seasons, and the planting cycle of the death and rebirth of crops took over as the source of life and, therefore, of worship.  


A Himba woman from Namibia, Africa grinds corn into meal with a stone, taking the first steps from a nomadic life toward one of agriculture.

The resurrection is celebrated during the spring Equinox (Easter) because this is when the sun fully triumphs over darkness (evil). After this date, the days become longer than the night until reaching the longest day of the year during the summer solstice. With Easter, life begins anew as symbolized by the rebirth of crops..

I'm not trying to prove precisely what the previous archetypal myths were, since this will probably never be known for certain. My main point here is that the many converging factors support the conclusion that such a founding mythology probably did exist and was likely based on the celestial motions our ancient ancestors witnessed, studied, and finally worshiped. Just as words and phrases transform over time until their original meaning has been forgotten, so with religion.

Ok, enough speculation, time to return to more solid ground.

 The process by which the early Christian Church transformed local pagan gods into Christian Saints is far better documented. The Church found it much easier to simply co-opt (convert) what was already considered sacred to the local populous than to completely overthrow the ancient beliefs altogether. The local deity's life story, miracles, and holy dates were merely transferred to that of the freshly minted "Saint," even to the point of building churches on the sites of the existing pagan temples and holy places.  


In Cusco, Peru, the Spanish conquerors built churches on the Inca holy sites with the very blocks of the previous temples.

"You're free to keep your gods, holy places, and traditional festivals," the pitch might have gone, "but they are now called Saints and under the auspices of the One Supreme god (which confusingly was actually three gods in One)." Far easier to accomplish, I'd imagine, than telling people what they and their ancestors had believed was simply false altogether. Rather than make waves with the new administration, the people went along, though it probably took the birth of new generations, instructed from childhood by the Priests, until belief in the new Creed really took hold.

Eventually, all that remained of the original "pagan" god was the area's local Saint; and the memory of this Saint's previous divine rank was forgotten. The only reason scholars know all this is because some of it was written down, mostly in the form of letters between Church officials that discussed the process openly.  


The Charles Bridge in Prague, lined with statues of Saints.

The question is whether they were following an earlier practice the founders of the church had also used. We see the same procedure at work with the founding of Islam, Mormonism, Buddhism, etc. I think it's a safe bet from all the commonality between ancient Middle Eastern religions and the Catholic Church that this is exactly what happened here as well. The only difference is that that process wasn't written down and has been lost to history. Just so with the initial source religion that got it all started, no doubt with the first group who switched to agriculture in ancient times, but lacked the technology of written language to transfer it through the millennia to us.  

 

Jesus, the Creation Story   

            The founders of early Christianity were trying to Convert Jews as well as the pagan Greek world, so they might have been following a double-track strategy that sometimes doesn't make logical sense when combined. After all, by claiming that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, they had to fulfill certain criteria from the Old Testament Prophesies that would disqualify him otherwise, such as being born in Bethlehem and being directly descended of the line of King David.

            We're told the historical Jesus, as well as his parents, lived in Nazareth, so the Bible gets Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in time for Jesus' birth by claiming it was an order from Cesar for purposes of a census. Why would anyone force people to travel to the place their ancestors once lived hundreds of years before merely to be counted in a census? Can you imagine what the disruption such a system would cause if everyone had to do such a thing? I think it far more logical to assume, therefore, that this device was used long after the fact to satisfy the demands of Jewish tradition which expected the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem as well as to satisfy another prophesy that the Messiah would be from Nazareth.

            Then there is the matter of Jesus being of the line of David. The writers of the new religion go to great lengths to detail the genealogy of Joseph's direct descent from King David. Both Mathew and Luke take the time to "prove" Joseph's direct descent from David by writing out detailed genealogies of the names of each ancestor in the chain. Strangely, Mathew lists 28 individuals in the genealogy and Luke 43 individuals. Stranger still, the only two names that are in both list are the first and the last -- Joseph and David. Christian apologists have several therories to explain this discrpency. Possibly, one of the geneologies is that of Mary, though her name is never mentioned. Or maybe Joseph had two fathers, a biological one and an adopted one, and the genealogies trace both these lines?

               But if Mary was a virgin and Joseph isn't actually related to Jesus, just as a son would not claim direct descent from anyone through a foster parent, what is the point of this genealogy in the first place? Could it be that even as the pagan myths such as virgin birth were added to convert the Greeks by some, other missionaries added their own pieces to satisfy their Jewish target audience; only to later be combined despite the gaps in logic? People may claim that Mary was also of the line of David, which is fine to stay true to the Old Testament Prophesies, but why all the effort with Joseph's extensive genealogy if it didn't matter? And if one is Mary's genalogy, why doesn't it even mention her name?

          Even the most central story of Christian belief, the resurrection and ascension to Heaven of Jesus, is riddled with inconsistencies by the various witnesses. Who saw Jesus first, how many were there, and nearly every detail of what happened afterward are contradicted by the various writers of the Gospels themselves. Matthew says they went to a mountain in Galilee to meet Jesus, while John says they met him in another location, Luke says the meeting was in Jerusalem. Paul alone tells us that Jesus appeared to a crowd of five hundred people. Mark tells us that Jesus ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, while Luke claims it happened in Bethany, and Matthew and John don't even mention it all.

            It seems strange to me that if someone rose from the dead and appeared to five hundred people and then ascended to heaven from either Jerusalem or Bethany it would have been reported by at least one of the many Roman historians in the area who lived at the time. Stranger still is the report Matthew alone gives us of darkness descending on the land during this time, of an earthquake that opened the graves of Saints who also rose from the dead and walked though Jerusalem. This seems so spectacular, you'd think the other gospel writers would have mentioned it, and certainly such an earthquake and multiple people coming back from the dead would have been noted by historians as well. 

Once again, I've added the specific quote below because I received emails from Christians claiming there is no such event mentioned in the Bible. I do wonder that such people wouldn't simply check the passage in Mathew before claiming I was making things up. Surely this is the one book I refer to in my essay that they must have!

From Matthew 27 - American Standard Version 
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me? 47 And some of them stood there, when they heard it, said, This man calleth Elijah. 48 And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. 49 And the rest said, Let be; let us see whether Elijah cometh to save him. 50 And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake; and the rocks were rent; 52 and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many. 54 Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of god.

    This paragraph sounds like it could qualify as the first zombie story ever written!

      Is this the sort of self-contradictory evidence I want to base my entire life upon? Do I feel confident enough in this story to say with certainty it is true over all the other miracle stories of every other religion? What would a court of law conclude if witnesses gave such conflicting accounts of a murder? 

     Another fact to consider is that historians agree that the Gospels weren't actual eye-witness accounts written by Apostles of Jesus. They were written long after the events by people who hadn't ever actually met Jesus and were written originally in Greek, rather than Aramaic, the language of Jesus and his Apostles, most of whom we would assume to be illiterate. We don't actually know who wrote them, since they were'nt signed and the authors never talk about themselves. Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John were simply added on later by people arbitrarily.

           I don't mean to turn this into an exclusive discussion of the pagan origins Christianity and most of its doctrine since there are far more extensive books on this subject that anyone can read if they're interested. (I'd recommend Thomas Payne's "The Age of Reason" as still one of the best starting points) The same critical light could be shined upon every religion I've studied. I'm spending my time on Christianity because it is the religion I was raised to believe in and I wanted to show a small portion of the historical facts that I cam across in High School and afterward that caused my doubt to grow to the point that I eventually concluded that religion itself was simply a man-made artifact; a useful one in the competition of people and societies, but with no more evidence to back up its claims than what I'd been told about Santa Clause.

 
The Hindu god Shiva the Destroyer, who dances the Tandava upon Maya, the demon of ignorance.

 

Lying Rabbits!  

For me, personally, the Easter Bunny was the first to fall. My Mother still laughs about the day when I figured this out. I solemnly sat her down on the stairs and said, "Ok, I know that there's no Easter Bunny. I woke up and saw you put the basket of chocolate eggs on the bed, but what I want to know is…" It was hard for me to even say it. "What about Santa?" My Mother laughs every time she recounts this story. She didn't have the heart to keep up the ruse and came clean with me that there wasn't any Santa Clause or even a Tooth Fairy, but got me to agree not to tell my younger brothers and sister.

It does seem comical to think of some of the things we actually believed when we were children, but are they all that different than some of the things we believe as adults? Now before you get all defensive and upset with me at this suggestion, let's just exempt your own religion from this statement and see what you think about some of the stories other people believe. Scientology and Mormonism are too easy and often-used targets, not because their beliefs are any more fantastic than the rest, but simply because they are more recent religions and their fairy tales haven't the patina of antiquity as most of the rest do.

If someone told you they rose from the dead, talked to a snake, lived for seven hundred years, or had a virgin birth last week or even a few decades ago, you'd be a lot more skeptical and demanding of proof than if such a claim is made thousands of years ago and has been accepted by people for an almost equal amount of time, even though 99.9999999 percent of the people who believe these things don't even claim to have actually witnessed it themselves.

For this reason, let's use an example from one of the established Religions. When I returned from a painting trip to India, one of my Fundamentalist Christian friends asked me if the Hindus believed in miracles their gods had performed on Earth the same as Christians believe. With so many examples to choose from, I decided to tell her this one…

The goddess Parvati, while bathing, created a boy out of the dirt of her body and assigned him the task of guarding the entrance to her bathroom. When Shiva, her husband, returned, he was surprised to find a stranger denying him access and struck off the boy's head in rage. Parvati broke down in utter grief at the death of her son. To soothe her, Shiva sent his guards to fetch the head of the first living being they came across. The company found a sleeping elephant and brought back its severed head, which was then attached to the body of the boy. Shiva restored its life and thus was born the Elepant-god Gahesha. Ganesh is one of the most popular gods of the Hindu pantheon, people pray to him regularly, leave offerings at his temples and keep small statues of him with them for protection everywhere they go, just as many of my neighbors and relatives in Chicago worship statues of Mary. 


Here's a photo I took of an offering of milk worshipers left in a temple devoted to mice and rats, which Hindus worship as well, since this is what Lord Ganesha rides in the myths. The mouse must have been a powerful symbol of danger to agriculturalists who stored their grain, so the god who subdued and commanded such a creature was very important.

Well, my friend found the idea of attaching an elephant's head to a man ridiculous. I agree completely. As I said previously, if I limited my discussion to all the religions of the world with the exception of the particular one the person I'm talking to believed in, no matter what that was, we'd probably be in complete agreement. It is ridiculous to take such a story literally, though million of people certainly do. But is the talking snake from the Garden of Eden any less unbelievable? Where does one find enough water to actually cover all the land across the globe from the Noah story and where does it go afterward? How about people living eight hundred years? Or being swallowed by a giant fish and surviving after days living in its stomach. Or rising from the dead?

The point is that Hindus believe their religious myths as fervently as my friend believes hers; and as literally as I used to as well. The only distinction she could make was that the Jesus myths weren't as "bizarre" as the Ganesh myth, which implies implicit agreement that they, too, are bizarre. But why is the Ganesh story more unbelievable than the Jesus story? Can not god, by definition, do anything? Why limit Himself when trying to convince people? I'd think that the more wondrous and "bizarre" the miracle, the more certain one would be that it was the work of god and not some magician's trick? I could probably fake my death and trick people into thinking I was resurrected a lot easier than chopping off my head and attaching an elephant's head in its place.

I admit that if I saw such a mirracle firsthand I might be converted.


A Hindu praying in an Indian Temple.

 

Who to Trust      

That brings us to the other argument people make for their religion, which is evidence. My friend claimed that Jesus' miracles are more believable than the Hindu example because they were witnessed first hand and written down, though not until several decades after the fact. She also says that the fact that a few of the witnesses were said to have been offered clemency if they confessed to lying about Jesus' resurrection but they still chose execution rather than changing their story (even these claims are merely tradition rather than documented history.) I guess if I had to judge this evidence against the evidence of the Ganesh story I might concede it to be a bit more evidenciarily endowed in comparison, but is it really enough for me to base my entire life upon?

To summarize, two thousand years ago, several people wrote down second-hand accounts of someone rising from the dead as well as performing other miracles, all of which had been claimed by numerous other religions throughout recorded history. The accounts themselves differ on crucial details of the story and, even though there were several Roman Historians living nearby at the time, none mentioned the event. I am told that if I don't accept this story as true and reject all the other religion's similar stories, I will go to Hell for eternity after I die, regardless of what sort of life I lead. 

I'm sorry, but this seems pretty scant evidence for such a monumental claim. I further have to wonder how convincing someone's argument can be if they have to resort to threats to bolster it. I find it an even more mind-bending task conceiving of a god that would set up such a system. Consider that the vast majority of people stick with the religion they were born into. Suppose for argument sake that there is only one true religion that is the exclusive path to heaven. Doesn't this mean that most of the people who will attain Heaven will do so based almost entirely on the luck of their having been born into that favored religion? Doesn't it further follow that god is sending the majority of the rest to Hell based simply on the luck of their birth? What kind of god would do such a thing?  


A Tibetan Buddhist monk in a room filled with images of terrifying demons torturing poor, wayward humans. Every religion uses both the carrot and the stick to persuade.

The most convincing evidence is something you see for yourself; though even then we can be fooled at times. Many people tell me that that their belief in god is based up personal experience, that they've seen an angel or that god spoke directly to them. I can certainly understand why one would believe in such a case. Each one of us has their own set of experiences and must construct our own ideas of reality based upon these very different set of facts. But how can such a person fault me for my lack of belief in their particular religion when I have been denied such first-hand evidence as they have?

Abraham Lincoln faced a similar dilemma. He had many preachers come to him and tell him that god had spoken to them directly and instructed them to personally deliver a message to the President about what course to follow on the slavery issue. Lincoln pointed out that god's advice was very difficult to decipher through these second-hand emissaries He'd chosen, since some claimed to have been told by god that slavery should be kept as it was, while others claimed to have been told by god that it should be abolished. Lincoln declared in a speech that until god decided to cut out the confusing middle-men and contact him directly, he would just have to use his own reason and make up his mind as best he could on his own.

"Whatever good you are willing to do for the sake of your god,
I am full as willing to do for the sake of man." 
Ernestine Rose - anti-slavery and woman's right advocate, as well as athiest.


"Monastary Interior" Tibet, 12" by 16" oil

 

Confessions of an Ignorant Man     

Which finally brings me back to the answer I promised earlier on what the difference is between my philosophy and a religious one. Basically, it comes down to this; I am not claiming to have all the answers, and the one common element of all religions is that they do. There is certainly nothing wrong with claiming to know something when you know it and can back it up with facts, but I find that most people's belief in religion is based on "faith" rather than facts. I'm often confronted with the demand of what explanation I have to offer myself as to what happens after death, with the implication being that it is better to at least believe in something, no matter how flawed, than nothing at all. After all, how to cope with the inevitability of death then?


Bones artistically arranged in the catacombs beneath a church in Lima, Peru. This seemed appropriate symbolism since fear of death is at the foundation of all religion. 

This argument reminds me of the words spoken by Lucrecius over two millennia ago. It goes something like this, "Fear was the Mother of the gods, fear, above all else, of death." I am one of the few people that will tell you I don't have the answer as to what happens after we die. I will gain very little of a following with such a statement, but it is the truth.

A television weatherman once told me that predicting a day or two ahead was a challenge and subject to great variability, but the five and seven day forecasts were a total fiction, that there was simply too much uncertainty to predict that far ahead with any more accuracy than a random guess would achieve. I asked him why he did a seven day forecast then. "If I was honest and said that there was simply no way for me to intelligently forecast the weather seven days from now, people would simply change the channel and find someone who would." I imagine the founder of any religion could say the same. This is about the time you should change the channel on me since I'm not going to pretend to have the answer and this is why my views are very different than a religion. I am not claiming to have the answer at all; in fact I'm being honest with you and myself by saying the opposite.


All people seem incapable of tolerating uncertainty and will follow nearly anyone who tells them they have the answer. Every religion's followers are equally as certain of their beliefs as these worshipers in Tibet, even though the basics of the various religious systems are so opposite that if one is right, no matter which one, this means the majority of the world's population must then be completely mistaken.

My Creed might read something like this. Question everything. Evaluate everything based on evidence. The greater the claim, the more evidence you should require. Don't be afraid of not knowing all the answers! We are human and not capable of knowing everything; those who claim such knowledge are almost certainly lying or deluded.

Socrates claimed no special knowledge of the universe above and beyond his fellow Greeks. He fully admitted that he knew nothing about the answers to the great mysteries of life. Socrates concluded, however, that he was smarter than his fellow citizens only because he knew he didn't know these answers, while they mistakenly thought they did. It was a victory by default, as if he never scored a goal, but won the game because his opponents kept accidentally kicking the ball into their own net. Thus one of the most intelligent answers one can give is often the admission of "I don't know." 

For this, Socrates was sentenced to death by his fellow citizens. Actually, he was given a choice, stop questioning the existence of the Greek gods on Mount Olympus, or drink poison. Socrates chose the poison. I suppose all people alive now, whether atheist or religious would agree that Socrates was right that the Greek gods weren't real. What do you think those living another two and a half millennia from now will think of our gods?

We all hate not knowing. Recently, Susan came down with a mysterious illness that kept her bedridden for weeks. We saw many doctors who put her through dozens of tests, none of which showed anything wrong. They simply didn't know. When this got out, we began hearing from dozens of well-meaning friends with all sorts of alternative healers they swore by. Susan was desperate and willing to try anything, which is understandable. I was cautious, not wanting her to exhaust herself chasing false leads when she should be resting and recovering. How to choose, after all, between all the dozens of suggestions?

One of our very good friends, who truly wanted to help Susan, suggested a woman who claimed she could tell you everything that was wrong with you and what to do about it by reading your aura. All you needed to do was send a photograph (and a check) to her and she could read the aura from that. She told us that this woman had saved many lives, but that we had to send a photograph printed from an actual film negative, not a digital camera. Apparently a digital photograph showed not a trace of person's aura while the old-fashioned film had no trouble picking it up. 

I think Susan was surprised at how excited I was about this since she knows how fact-based my thinking is. Many people have accused me of being closed-minded, but this is not the case at all. I'm open to any idea, I just demand that it stand up to scientific testing, which is why I was so excited by this woman's claim. My suggestion was that I send her fifty numbered photographs of Susan, half of which I would print from a film camera and the other half printed from a digital camera. If the woman could truly only see an aura in the prints taken with the film camera, it should take her but a moment to tell me which twenty-five photographs were taken with which camera. If she could do this, I would happily send her a check for diagnosing Susan. 

I was told that such a request would be insulting, that it was like calling her a liar. "Would a car salesman be insulted if I asked to lift up the hood of a car before buying it?" I asked, but to no avail. I truly would have loved to have done this test, but dropped the idea when I saw how much conflict and hurt feelings it would cause by pushing it, and no doubt even more if she failed the test as I guessed she would. If you think I was hoping she would fail because it would confirm my skepticism, by the way, you would be wrong. Having someone pass such a test would be one of the most exciting scientific discoveries of our time, and for me to be a part of such a thing would be exhilarating. It seems that unquestioning faith is as alive in the New Age as in the Old; and so are the profits.

By the way, if this woman could perform such a test as I suggested above, she would be able to claim a million dollar prize that has been long offered by the "James Randi Educational Foundation" for anyone who can prove psychic or paranormal abilities in a controlled experiment. To read some of the long list of applicants that were so certain of their abilities that they submitted themselves to such a scientific test (and to claim the million dollars), go to http://forums.randi.org/forumdisplay.php?f=43 

The most interesting part of these tests is how surprised the claimants are when they fail so thoroughly. You come to realize how many of these people truly believe in their own abilities and aren't just simple con artists. Like the tobacco farmer, however, even when confronted by such evidence, they invariably find a way of blaming the test itself for disrupting their abilities. The fact that not one person has ever been able to succeed is very telling. The fact that there have been a relatively small percentage of people who claim psychic and paranormal abilities willing to put themselves to the test even for a reward of a million dollars is even more telling.

Susan did finally recover despite the doctors never finding an answer, validating the ancient Egyptian saying, "The doctor's job is to amuse the patient with his 'remedies,' while the body heals itself." No doubt one of the psychic healers would be claiming another miraculous success for themselves had we hired one.

If someone tells me they've seen an alien land in their backyard, I don't believe such a monumental claim until I've seen it. Do I know aliens don't exist? No, but I don't "believe" in them either. This is such a large claim I will require a proportional amount of evidence (far more than fuzzy photographs of lights that might be many things or scattered second-hand accounts). Such is my feelings on the multitude of gods there are to choose from. There are things that can't be known, at least with our current evidence, and the claims of all religions falls into this category in my opinion. Many things that used to fall into the unknowable category and were explained by religion, have now been explained by science. Such was the case with the idea of the Sun moving around us rather than the other way around. Religion's record is very bad on such things, so one should treat its current claims with even more skepticism. There always will be darkness for religion to retreat to. There will always be things we don't know that will prompt the challenge, "Well, what's your answer then?" What I'm saying is that it is ok to not have an answer.

Just because certain things can't be explained, this doesn't excuse simply making something up so you don't have to worry about it any more. This is the easy way out, the path to complacency. What if Galileo and Copernicus had simply accepted the Church's explanation of the motion of the planets like everyone else unquestioningly did for thousands of years? Thomas Aquinas implied that the need for scientific inquiry no longer existed because all the answers were already written down in the Bible so this was the only realm any scholar need attend to. Is it any wonder that the rise of the Catholic Church throughout the "Dark" Ages saw an actual reversal in scientific progress? All the brilliant minds of Greek science were forgotten, their books actually scraped clean so the parchment could be written over with something useful such as prayers - a very logical thing to do if you know for certain your particular god exists. (An interesting account of modern imaging technology rediscovering the previous lost writings of Archimedes on just such a prayer book is "The Archimedes Codex.")


Here a young Tibetan acolyte assembles a freshly printed book of prayers. I love the utter timeless serenity of this photo, which would be indistinguishable from a thousand years ago. Nostalgic as it is, though,  I can't help wondering what might happen if all the time and effort devoted to reading prayers might not be better spent actually learning math, science, philosophy, or even just writing something new for a change?

 

Grand Illusion     

Aquinas' idea is still reflected in the battle over the theory of Evolution. Again, if your starting point is the absolute truth of god and that his infallible words are reflected in the Bible, then all the irrational arguments used in defending the idea that the universe is little more than six thousand years old become rational. Let me use one example from a discussion I've had with several people who believe this. My question was simply how to explain the fact that we see so many stars in the sky, the light of which took the vast majority of them millions, some billions, of years to reach us. The answer I've been given is that god simply created the light already in transit at the time of creation so it only "appears" that the light had actually traveled that distance. It you agree upon the starting point stated above, this explanation is not only logical, but nearly the only one possible.

If you follow the thread of this explanation a little farther, the implications are truly amazing. The fact that the light we see from stars was created by god already near the Earth and not by distant suns millions of years ago, means that the night sky itself is little more than a vastly complex illusion. It's been estimated by astronomers that our Milky Way Galaxy contains a hundred-billion stars within it and that our Galaxy is but one of a hundred-billion galaxies, each containing the approximate number of stars ours does. That's one-hundred billion times one-hundred billion stars total for god to have created the light already in transit to us. God, by definition, can do anything of course, but why a subterfuge of such magnitude? 

Think of the intricate photographs from the Hubble Telescope, each of which would only be an illusion, since the light they are constructed from here on Earth must not have originated with these complex objects at all, but been created out of nothing from the start by god - supernovas, quasars, black holes, and all the rest never actually existed. If you know without doubt the infallibility of god's existence, the Bible, and thus the age of creation, then this simply must be accepted as fact, and many people do.


Star-forming pillars in the Eagle Nebula, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope
Further information at: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/2003/34/image/a
Credit: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)
This file is in the public domain because it was created by the European Space Agency and NASA.

            This is why I find it a waste of time trying to convince a believer in Creationism of Evolution. It all really comes down to an argument of the evidence for god himself. People tip-toe around this issue and if you aren't willing to challenge this first proposition, which all the rest is logically based upon, it is a pointless exercise. I hear some people say that Creationists are "crazy," but I don't think they are at all, which is obvious by some of the very smart and successful people who believe it. If god appeared to me and proved his existence and told me that the universe was, indeed, only six thousand years old, I would come to the same, very logical, conclusions as they have. Therefore, it all comes down to how certain a fact your particular god is. Were I to meet such a god, however, I might be tempted to ask Him what was the point of creating so many pretend Galaxies and stars that appear to be much older than they actually are, not to mention all the dinosaur bones?


Star-Forming Region LH 95 in the Large Magellanic Cloud as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope


Spiral Galaxy M100 an illusion? 
visit http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/ to travel back millions of years in time and witness spectacular astronomical sights.

After all, it seems like god is deliberately trying to fool me. If, as some of the religious suggest, such a deception is meant as a test of my faith, as a way to see if my belief in god could withstand such a direct assault by my logical intellect, why give me the faculty of reason in the first place? Maybe there is a very good reason for all of this and our human intellect is simply too puny to understand - akin to trying to explain Algebra to a dog. Then why not give us more brain power? Why the emphasis on testing our unreasoning faith in the first place? If you just want to surround yourself with uncritical yes-men in Heaven, why not make us that way. If a toaster can't perform the task it is designed for, do we blame the toaster?

 

What is?      

            And so, the argument we should be having isn't even about the existence of god at all, since I am using logic and evidence to evaluate the truth of a god, while the religious reject these tools in favor of "faith." Unless you can both agree on which standard to evaluate reality by, you will never come to an agreement. This is why it is generally pointless to argue about who owns Israel, cows, evolution, and even the existence of god. I've heard two people who've seen the same debate between a scientist and Creationist both claim utter victory for their side. The only argument that really has any meaning is between the ideas of physical-based evidence versus faith. If you can convince either side to change the standard they evaluate reality with, then all the rest will follow. If you cannot, then you are in for a very long debate. Who was the great Philosopher, that paragon of intellect and unimpeachable morality who said, "It all depends on what the definition of 'is' is?" Well, he was unimpeachable, at least.

            It sometimes seems to me that the strength of belief in something is inversely proportional to the lack of evidence for it. This was more elegantly stated by the 17th Century philosopher, Montaigne, who wrote, "Nothing is more firmly believed as that which is least known." Amazingly, he wrote this at a time when all manuscripts had to be reviewed and approved by the Inquisition. I imagine Montaigne used the same tactic as I have suggested above, by saying he was referring to all the other religions except Christianity. In that case, I'm sure the Inquisitors would have been in full agreement with his statement.


This is a poster I ran across in India that even the illiterate can understand. It is illustrating the idea of the preferred path of reincarnation for the person who lives a good life. The red "x" marks are what you want to avoid, but will be your fate if you don't follow the rules of society and the Hindu religious doctrine. I personally might choose the rabbit, myself.

            With so many conflicting claims out there, from Reincarnation, to multiple sightings of people rising from the dead, to dates certain for the end of the Earth, etc., what standard do I personally use to sort through them all and evaluate truth, fact, and all the rest? Most important of all, "is" god or "is" He not?

"Do you believe in electrons?" I was recently challenged by someone who was trying to prove that I also believed many things I had not seen myself just as people believe in a god they've never seen. Even before my response, he claimed to have won our argument with this question alone.

            My reply dealt with a few thoughts on electrons and scientific "fact." Science never claims any absolute certainty about anything, as does religion. Every theory is open to further interpretation and even a complete overthrow if new facts emerge. Do I "believe" in electrons? Absolutely not. This is a theory like all the rest and subject to change someday. The very idea of god is also a theory that attempts to explain things, such as the creation of the universe, what happens to us after we die, and even sometimes small things such as why one person has a "god-given" talent or beauty. I wonder why no one speaks of being born with a "god-given" deformity or lack of talent? What, exactly did that child do to deserve the gift or the retardation? In India, a Hindu once told me not to feel so much pity for a crippled little girl who was begging on street because she was obviously being punished for deeds in her previous life.

The heartbreaking sight of all the low cast children who collect whatever can be recycled. Their only hope for improving their station is accepting their lot graciously and being reborn in a higher caste as reward in the next life.

            Because humans are very limited in what they can perceive, I don't think anything can be known for certain, including electrons. However, we do have the power of reason to evaluate evidence and think logically. This is what I try and do about such things as electrons, gods, and all things I can't see for myself. I look at the evidence I've been presented with and put it on a scale of probability. In chemistry, the theory of atoms and electrons seem to explain things very well, so this pushes the theory farther up the scale in my mind. Even here, however, there are troubling gaps and inconsistencies in physics and Quantum mechanics that tell me there are still things to be explained about electrons. It may be that this theory is incomplete in the way we understand it.

Therefore, I do not "believe" in electrons with the certainly people believe in god since I know my knowledge is limited, but it does seem high up on the probability ladder. Even though I have not seen them with my eyes, I've seen their effects and read about the experiments conducted by reliable sources.

            Could all of this evidence for electrons be a hoax? Of course. I know very successful people who believe the Moon landings are a hoax, and they may be right, but I have to weigh the likelihood of the various pieces of evidence logically in my own mind and determine what level of probability to give it. In my estimation, the evidence I've seen on the Lunar landings puts it very high up my personal ladder of probability. A hoax of something this complex, or of the evidence for electrons, would have to be a vast conspiracy, which doesn't mean it's impossible, but, based on the incompetence of government in keeping even small secrets, I deem highly improbable. If I worked at NASA or even flown there myself, my "belief" in the fact of the Moon landings would go even higher. Of course, if I were a first-hand witness to a Moon conspiracy such as a camera operator in the supposed sound stage where the hoax is claimed by some to have been filmed, I would be evaluating completely different facts and coming to a different conclusion. If any of this happens to me someday, I will reevaluate my guess as to what the truth is and how high up the ladder of certainly to place it, but this will not mean I was stupid before, only lacking in proper information.

            I am not taking as a starting point that anything is certainly true and then evaluating every other fact based on this, which is what religion has you do. If your starting point is the certainty of god's existence, whichever one of the multitude you believe in, then your evaluation of any "fact" will be warped to fit this reality from the start. This is why no one should ever put anything at the absolute one-hundred percent top of the probability scale, even a scientific theory. To do so is to stop searching for more evidence that might prove you wrong and reveal an even greater truth.

            So far, everything the theory of electrons has predicted has proven out - radios, television, chemistry, etc. The greater the claim, the more evidence I tend to demand. If you tell me your sister is visiting from out of town, I tend to believe you more than disbelieve, though I leave open the possibility of being fooled. If you tell me an Angel is sitting across from you and revealing the date when the world will end, I will require more evidence. If you say that god told you how every person, including me, must live their life, then I will require even more evidence.

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
Carl Sagan


"Holy Man" oil, 24" by 18" India. 
This painting is of a Hindu Holy man, or Sadu, who can be identified by the saffron colored garments traditionally worn by those who have taken up the solitary life of religious devotion. He must be very sure of his beliefs, indeed, to have given up everything for prayer. I guess if you're a devout Christian, you must feel he is wasting his life on a lie, but then I suppose he would think the same of you.

I am certain that some of the things I believe with a high probability now will be proved wrong in a hundred or thousand years. It could happen tomorrow. You cannot fault those people that thought the sun went around the Earth since this would be the natural conclusion of anyone with the limitations of human perception. The fact that the Bible is supposed to be the words of someone with vastly super-human perceptions, however, would lead one to expect observations that could not have been known at the time by mere humans and were later born out by science when our perceptions broadened. Suppose, for example, that the Bible had told us that the Earth went around the sun instead of making the human mistake of the opposite. Or that it predicted planets in our Solar System or moons orbiting Jupiter we couldn't see before the invention of telescopes. Wouldn't that have been far better evidence than having someone rise from the dead as so many other previous pretenders already claimed and not even having it very well documented at the time? Surely this would have been clear-cut evidence that would make someone like me sit up and take notice.

All of us must work logically with the imperfect facts at hand. There are some things, however, that I simply don't have enough facts at all to make much of a determination upon. If I lived two hundred years ago, I would have had no problem saying that I didn't know what atoms were like and if someone told me there were such things as electrons, but didn't give me any of the evidence we now have to back up the theory, I would have felt the same about them as I do about the existence of a supreme being. My skepticism would have no bearing on the truth of electrons, just as it now has no bearing on the question of god's existence. I would simply be accepting my own limitations as a mortal and the limitations of the information before me.

            There is no shame in saying you don't know something. There is also no shame in evaluating the evidence as best you can and being proved wrong when new evidence turns up. But to simply say you are certain, without any doubt, based on very scant evidence from thousands of years ago, especially about something as profound as religion claims; this, in my view, is simply ignoring the greatest gift we've been given, whether by god or evolution, or something we don't even suspect yet - our capacity to reason intelligently.

            For me, as for science, nothing can ever reach a perfect one hundred percent certainty on the probability ladder. As to god, I put it very low on the probability ladder based on the evidence and logic I've seen for it. Religion itself goes even lower on the ladder based on actual "negative evidence" such as the very number of mutually exclusive religious views out there and the historical record of how most religions come about and evolve to serve specific human, rather than divine, purposes. Think of all the thousands of religions that used to be around that have vanished now. 

"The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason."
Benjamin Franklin

             If there does turn out to be a god, I put the probability very high that He or She or It has had nothing to do with any of the religions ever in existence. I don't say that it is impossible, no more than I'd say it was impossible that my neighbor has magical creatures in his attic. I stand ready to reevaluate either proposition with new facts to consider, but without any solid evidence, I put my "belief" in both things very low on the ladder of probably being true. Certainly I would place a bet on electrons more than on the specific god of any of the thousands of gods people have believed in throughout history.

 

Weapon of Mass Deception

How to explain the fact that belief in gods are so universal, then? My answer is very simple. Never underestimate the power of our minds to protect us from some truth or fact that might be harmful, either psychologically or physically. Stated another way; people believe what they want to believe, what is convenient to believe, what is profitable to believe, and what is comforting to believe, no matter how at odds with reality this belief might be. Politicians, con men, investment scam artists, fad diet peddlers, and, of course, religious leaders use this basic fact of the human mind to great advantage. You are most likely to convince someone of a lie if you tell it to someone whose self-interest is served by believing it.


"Planting Time" oil, 20" by 16"
This is just up the road from our house on Flat Shoals Road. The farmers are planting Tobacco with the Quaker Gap Baptist Church in the background.

            When Susan and I first moved to North Carolina from Chicago, I got to know several of the tobacco farmers who live down the road from us. I was fascinated by the whole process and amazed at the depth of knowledge and intelligence of the various farmers I talked to. In many ways, they were like scientific researchers and engineers, testing the soil, mixing chemicals, fixing complex machinery etc. Despite some of the stereotypes of the South, there is no way you can call a tobacco farmer in North Carolina stupid once you meet them.

            "Why don't you smoke cigarettes?" one of the farmers asked me one day, and I explained that I never had and didn't want to start since I'd had several relatives who'd died from smoking.

            "Don't believe any of that nonsense in the news about smoking," the farmer told me. "I can tell you for an absolute fact that smoking is actually very good for you." He then launched into a detailed argument I've heard many times while living here, based on what the farmers consider very solid evidence, fostered by disinformation by Tobacco Company propaganda for a long time as well. The corner grocery store just up the hill from my house usually has three or four farmers playing cards and smoking. Generally there's at least one with an oxygen tank. I was very surprised that someone who I knew for a fact was very rational and intelligent in some matters, could so completely ignore the mountains of evidence that made it nearly impossible that what he believed about cigarettes was true.

            To understand the power of our minds in selecting what to believe and what not to, consider the matter from the farmer's point-of-view for a moment. He is a very moral, religious, and hard-working person. The livelihood of his family is dependent on his profession of raising tobacco. His entire sense of self-worth and pride is tied up with his being a tobacco farmer, and of contributing something of value to society. Then someone tells him tobacco kills people and is bad. Does he look dispassionately at the evidence as a scientist might and come to his determination based on the facts? Of course not. When given the choice of believing something that will harm itself, our minds generally opt to simply not believe it, even to construct its own reality and set of "facts;" in this case that "prove" tobacco is actually good for people. Therefore, when evaluating the issue, his starting point is the certainly that tobacco is good for you and the rest logically follows from there.

            In my opinion, this is exactly what most people's psyches do when considering the inevitability of death. It is far more comforting to believe we and our loved ones won't die, so the mind searches for someone to supply the "facts" that will support this belief. Religions compete with each other to become the supplier of these "facts," be they the idea of reincarnation, Heaven, Nirvana, or something else altogether. The religion that comes up with the most convincing story wins the greatest number of followers.


The currency of all religion is that of giving the worshiper a sense of control over their fears. Praying is akin to having a friend in a high place that will intercede on one's behalf against the always looming vicissitudes of life.

Once the Shaman, Priest, Pharo, or divinely ordained King has found a soothing enough story to convince his followers, then he is free to use this crack in the normal skepticism of people to convince them to do all manner of things, from building a pyramid, to not rebelling against a life-long station within a lower caste, to going to war for god and Country, to strapping on explosives and becoming a martyr, etc. As with the tobacco farmer, the mind will go to extreme lengths to maintain the central fact it simply could not function without.

I can't remember who said this, but the quote goes something like this. "Religion is comforting for the peasant, profitable for the priest, and extremely useful for the king."


On the positive side, religion has given us some of the most spectacular architecture ever created by man. Here is one of the tops, the Taj Mahal, built by a Muslim ruler in India to honor his wife as a tomb. Sadly, the clash of religions between Pakistan and India is one of the other great danger areas of the world.

So, why is the belief in god, if not the same one, so universal? Because our greatest fear is universal as well. Possibly if scientists someday unlock the secret of ageing and we achieve immortality, the belief in god may no longer be so widespread. One certainly has to wonder why everyone works so hard to extend their lives using whatever means possible if they truly believe they are going to Heaven. Why delay such a wonderful reward? You don't see people trying to put off their vacations or wishing there could be just a few more days added to their prison sentence before they are freed. Could it be that, deep down, there is a crack of doubt? I certainly agree that suicide bombers crazy, but you can't deny they must be among the most certain of the existence of god.

I wonder what would happen if someone invented an immortality pill, but only agreed to give it to people who professed no belief in god or the afterlife? How could ministers and the faithful object when they claim death will be a far greater reward than life? My suspicion is that humans cling to the belief in god and the afterlife since it is the only option open to them, despite the lack of evidence for it, and that if a more certain alternative were available, they would drop their myths and soothing superstitions faster than you could say Limbo. Jesus may be sacrificed a second time, this time more permanently, for our immortality. 

 

The Fool I was/am?        

Before you think I am picking on tobacco farmers, let me be clear about one important issue. We all do the same thing! Even the most logical of us, me included, have blind spots where our minds have stepped in to distort reality to our advantage. It is so easy to see the delusions of others and extremely difficult to see our own. Have you ever been in a relationship that every one of your friends told you was bad for you, but you simply knew was a good thing; until the day you found out your friends were right after all.

Afterward, the clues and signs seem as obvious to you as they'd been all along to everyone else, and you can't believe you didn't see them yourself at the time. Your mind was doing exactly what the farmer's was. You were believing what you wanted to, using as a starting point the "fact" that he or she would never lie to you and then evaluating everything else based on this premise. If that is the starting point, then your evaluation of everything is perfectly sound. The only reason your friends came to a different conclusion is that they were free of this initial assumption.  

I remember one friend telling a story when I was in Art School of how she'd found her boyfriend with a girl who had no shirt on. We all cheered the fact that our friend had finally realized what a jerk her boyfriend was, which we'd tried to tell her for a long time. "No, no," she stopped us. "I almost jumped to the wrong conclusion myself, but there was a very good explanation for this. You see, they'd had a party at the house and this girl was simply too drunk to drive home, so my boyfriend was letting her stay over the night so she wouldn't get into an accident. As he helped her into bed, she threw up all over her blouse, so he helped her take it off."

Our jaws dropped and, no matter how hard we tried, no one could convince her that this was obviously not the truth. Her conclusions were perfectly logical if the starting fact that he would never lie to her was true. Her mind so wanted to believe this, it simply wouldn't allow any facts to the contrary to shake it. In all other matters, my friend was so sharp at sniffing out a lie or seeing someone else's delusions, it amazed me how blind she could be to her own. I've done the same myself. So with us all. So with religion.


The Groom rides on the traditional white horse in an Indian marriage ceremony in Delhi. Love is probably the second most blinding factor for any person next to religion. When both parties are equally devoted, it is magic, but when only one is, the other is easy prey for the unscrupulous.

            Such a mistaken starting point can lead to all manner of mistaken conclusions. If you know your boyfriend wouldn't lie to you, then the friend who tells you he hit on her, or the other friend who reported seeing him with another girl, must be lying to you. Soon you will throw away a lot of your most loyal friends. This sort of reasoning is how we get tricked into fraudulent investment schemes, it colors our political judgments, racial stereotypes, and even the way we sometimes evaluate our own work efforts.

I've looked at old paintings I did in Art School and wondered that I once proudly showed them off to anyone who would look. How could I not have seen at the time how awful they were! The answer is that I so wanted to be a good painter, my mind was ready to shield me from seeing evidence to the contrary. This is a constant battle even now for me. I want to believe I've done a masterpiece but must continually force myself to step back and look beyond the rosy filter my brain wants to place over my eyes and see my work as it really is. It helps to look at things that are truly masterpieces to confront yourself with your own work's shortcomings. It is difficult, grueling, and depressing to force yourself to see things as they really are, but it is the only way you can then correct the mistakes and improve as an artist, or as a thinking human as well. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is still ignorance, and only knowledge will lead to self-improvement whatever the endeavor.

 

The Age of Reason       

            In the book "Blink" Malcom Gladwell relates experiments that show us how hard it is for the mind to change its opinion once that first, snap judgment is formed. Even if it later turns out it had been making its initial determination based on incomplete or even faulty information, we tend to cling to our initial opinion. When this judgment is based on something we really want to believe, then I'd surmise it is even harder to change course. After that initial judgment is accepted, I believe our minds work very hard to search for evidence that might support its already-formed belief and selectively ignore or twist that which would undermine or even disprove it.

Such is the case with god and religion. Add to this the fact that our initial judgment for the existence of god is made when we are children, before the so called "age of reason" as us Catholics term the age of twelve when we are deemed old enough to make up our minds rationally about god and decide if we should be "Confirmed" in a church ceremony. I've never seen anyone decline Confirmation, by the way. Can you imagine turning down a party where all your relatives give you gifts and even cash! (Listen to Julia Sweeney's hilarious autobiographical story of this in her one-woman play called "Letting Go of god" to hear more about this - you can find it on I-tunes by a simple search).

           Just as children are primed to accept things like Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny simply on the word of their parents and other authority figures, so with the existence of god. This is when nearly all humans first learn of god, before they are ready to think logically and skeptically at all. 


This scene of Tibetan monks seems so serious until you notice the young boy in the front playing with an electric car.

            One interesting experiment that shows how hard-wired into our brains childhood acceptance is, was conducted using human and chimpanzee children. Both were taught, through example, a series of procedures on the levers of a box, after which a treat or toy would be released from a slot in the box. Once the human or chimp youngster had learned the procedure, the box was replaced with an identical box, except that its sides were made of clear plastic, revealing what the levers did when you moved them.

            Now that the internal working of the box were revealed, it was clear that half of the procedures that the children had been taught to do had no effect at all on freeing the desired gift. What do you intuitively think happened? I expected that the human children's more advanced brain would figure this out and they would skip the procedures they'd been taught that had nothing to do with accomplishing their purpose, and that the chimps might not figure this out at all and simply continue following the rote steps they'd been taught.

            Amazingly, exactly the opposite occurred! The chimp children immediately skipped the steps that had nothing to do with the prize, while most of the human children, from every culture and racial group around the globe the test was run with, invariable followed the procedure without question even when it was clear that some of the steps were unnecessary and that carrying them out actually delayed getting the toy. This clearly shows how thoroughly human children's brains are wired to accept without question the lead of their parents and elders. The researchers did not tell them they had to follow this procedure; the teaching was done merely by example, so there was no reason the children might fear being punished for disobeying, but they followed the lead of the adult anyway, despite any gap in the logic of doing so. Here's a link to an article in the NY Times that details the initial experiment reported by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten in "Animal Cognition" (2005) 8: pp 164-181.  http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/13/science/13essa.html

            I have no doubt this change between chimp and human minds was evolved into us as our technology advanced and became far more dangerous than our ancestors dealt with. Poison arrows, fire, etc. might have selected out those that didn't follow the examples and orders of their parents unquestioningly.  

            Because of this biological necessity, by the time we reach twelve or so and begin the road to adult reasoning and skepticism, we have already been primed with the assumption that god is a fact. All the subsequent information that might lead us to an opposite conclusion is twisted to fit this initial bias, just as with the tobacco farmer and in the manner Malcom Gladwell relates in the studies of how the mind can wrongly interpret data when starting from a flawed assumption.


"Colors of the Desert" India, oil, 36" by 60"
Peer pressure and the desire to fit in with those of your society are also powerful motivating factors to remain within the fold of normal beliefs, actions, and dress. Even the so-called "non-conformist" of society are actually conforming to the dress and actions of the non-conformist group they seek approval from.

Scientists are human as well and this can happen to them also. Many scientists who start with a theory will drift into treating it like a proven fact and fall into the same trap I'm talking about with religion. This is why the concept of peer revue, ideally by someone free of the same self-interested bias in the outcome, is so crucial for reliable science to thrive. I feel that this is why leaving safety trials in the hands of the very drug companies who stand to gain so much if the drug proves safe is so dangerous. Even without conscious wrongdoing, it is very difficult to remain truly unbiased under such conditions.

 

It Turns out I was Right All Along!    

Everyone who claims that their belief in god and their religion is based solely on logic and facts must consider what their starting point has been. Most likely they believed in god from the time of childhood. Surely they don't claim that this was based on pure logical reasoning at that time? Even if a child of five or six could reason as well as an adult, they certainly had not studied all the religions of the world and then chosen the one that seemed the most factually based?

            Therefore their study of all the evidence and facts came much later, well after the time when they'd already likely accepted the "fact" of god's existence. The adherents of many religions believe they have proved their particular creed based on evidence and fact, just as my Fundamentalist friend claims of the miracles of Jesus; but consider the enormously bias starting point they began from when finally evaluating such facts in adulthood, probably after decades of belief. The shift in your perception of reality when giving up such basic assumptions held since childhood is hard to explain. 

             I can still remember the first time I read about all the ancient religions that also believed in gods that had died and risen from the dead. Just that first crack of doubt in the fact of Jesus evoked an actual physical panic in my chest, similar to the moment a roller coaster plummets over the edge. My reality had begun to shift around me and it wasn't a pleasant sensation.

                 I went to a museum recently with a friend who is a famous historian and I noticed that she'd been studying a large landscape painting for ten or fifteen minutes. When I walked up, she pointed to a photograph hung next to the painting. "I've studied the photograph of the artist standing in front of the location of this painting and gone over it rock by rock and I swear that he reproduced the scene so amazingly perfectly that there is not a detail in the scene that doesn't match up perfectly with the painting!" I couldn't help laughing and pointing out to my brilliant friend that the artist wasn't standing in front of the scene in the black and white photograph, but in front of the very painting itself, which is why every detail matched so perfectly. 

             When my friend realized this, she was so shocked that she looked almost dizzy. With a few words I'd so shifted her view of reality that she was distressed and embarrassed that she could have been so mistaken about something that seemed so obvious once it was pointed out to her. This from one of the most exacting scholars of truth I know, from someone who I love talking to because she is so good at pointing out my own fuzzy thinking about history and reality, who never lets me get away with a statement I can't back up with facts. We all can be fooled, and the mind will struggle mightily to hold onto its comforting delusions and rebel mightily when forced to admit an error, especially a big one that everything else is oriented around. 

             My friend's investment of fifteen minutes of study of the painting and photograph is nothing compared to someone's investment of a lifetime of evaluating the world and their own purpose in life based on their religion, so you have to multiply the mental stress such a realization can have a thousand fold. 

                 There certainly are a small number of people who end up switching to a radically different religion than the one they were brought up in, but the very rarity of this seems the exception that proves the rule. Most changes in religion are simply between different denominations that don't challenge the core assumption of a particular god's existence. Certainly this is the case of the many forms of Christianity that hold the facts of Jesus in common. A Christian is less likely to switch to Islam, or the Jewish faith because of this, but at least they share the particular founding idea of god and the Old Testament so it is not unheard of. To switch even more radically to Hinduism, or something else without even the god of one's youth is such a total change that even less make this leap.


Tibetan Monks reenacting the myths and gods of their faith.

            We look at the religious stories and "facts" of other cultures much more analytically and critically because we are not burdened by the same childhood-acquired bias the members of that culture are. Challenging them doesn't threaten our core worldviews and risk the kind of mental distress that inevitably follows. This is why people from here laugh when I tell them the story of the Maasai believing god gave them all the cows of the world. It is also why they cringe in disgust at the comment the Hindu man made to me about the crippled girl deserving her deformity. But ask yourself, would you feel the same way if you had been born into their culture, absorbed the "truth" of their religious beliefs before reaching the age of reason yourself? Are you so certain? What might you think of your own religious beliefs if you were encountering them now, as a thinking adult, for the first time without the biases acquired in childhood and reinforced everyday by solidarity with those around you?

            Once you experience other cultures first-hand and see the depth of their belief in something that is absolutely at odds with your own beliefs, it makes you wonder. How is it that Hindus can believe so deeply the idea that they will be reborn into a higher or lower being based on how they live their life now? Certainly this cannot be the case if the Christian god is the true one? How then can someone believe something so wrong? Remember, they think the very same thing about your beliefs.

            Every time I go on a painting trip and study someone else's culture, religion, political structure, etc.; it ends up turning the light back on me far more than I'd anticipated. Some of the greatest revelations I've had about my own beliefs and prejudices have come while viewing other cultures. I feel embarrassed at how blind I'd been to something that, in retrospect, seemed obvious, but I'm always glad to be a little closer to the truth.


This is one of four Himba woman and their children who live in Namibia, Africa that we encountered on the side of a road with pickaxes they were using to harvest some red ochre used to rub over their bodies and hair.. They were extremely thankful when we offered to give them a ride back to their village. Looking into this woman's eyes, one has to wonder how they perceived us. What would they think of the assumptions and beliefs we take for granted? Are our culture's gods and myths any less fantastic than their Animist ones?

 

Do You Want Me to Be Honest?  

On the show, American Idol, people marvel at how someone can believe themselves a fantastic singer when they are utterly horrible. No matter what the judges tell them, they cannot be convinced otherwise. Why hadn't their families and friends told them before they went before the humiliation of a national audience? Maybe they had been told the truth and simply filtered it out like many of us do of things we don't want to believe, or maybe their family also wanted to believe so much that they were also blind to the truth. I would bet this very person would have little difficulty in correctly assessing a stranger's singing abilities.

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."
H. L. Mencken

Doesn't watching that show make you even a little suspicious of your own long-held convictions? I find myself asking, "Could I be that self-deluded person who everyone knows something about?" It seems the most tragic thing imaginable. Who knows, if that person could only look honestly at themselves, they might turn their energy into more productive directions and realize they were a math genius, or a fantastic painter, or whatever else. Even if they stick with music, surely they cannot improve if they can't even recognize what they are doing wrong now. Think of how easily it is for scam artists to take advantage of such a person by preying on their dreams of being a star, even though there is no chance of such a thing.


This girl wears gloves to protect her hands as she works her way around a temple in Lhasa by prostrating herself forward, then standing up where her hands were, then kneeling and stretching forward once again. By repeating this supplication thousands of times, the devote works their way inchworm style around the temple. The most devoted travel hundreds of miles in this manner from their village along the roads to Lhasa for extra credit, I suppose. A good use of time? Well, it certainly would make for a great weight-loss program!

            As I've already said, it is very easy to see other people's delusions and very hard to see our own. If you are lucky, you'll have someone, a spouse, a teacher, a friend, who will be honest with you. If you really want to know the truth in order to improve yourself, you will listen. Many times such honesty is a sure way of losing a friend, so the safe path is to simply say nothing and let your friend find out the hard way for themselves, or possibly end up wasting a large portion of their life trying to make it as a musician despite being tone deaf. Are such people really friends looking out for your well being?

            I am writing this not to try and pretend I'm smarter than anyone else, because I'm not. I'm trying to be that friend who you'd wish would tell you when you had something stuck in your teeth that no one else will mention to you. All of our minds are wired essentially the same, so must overcome similar obstacles. I struggle with these natural biases all the time and am certain that there are many things I cannot see about myself that are obvious to nearly everyone around me. But knowing this fact is always the first step in identifying our delusions and the biases that lead us astray.

Think of the marvelous truths Copernicus and Galileo uncovered by looking critically at the assumptions they'd been told as children and nearly everyone around them accepted as truth. We think of them as geniuses, but would it have mattered how smart they were if they didn't also question and analyze the facts free of the bias of their time? Surely this was at least as critical as their scientific abilities. Possibly it is the definition itself of a great scientist. A survey of Nobel Prize wining scientists showed that ninety-five percent of them don't believe in god, the complete opposite of the general population's belief ratio. This does not constitute proof, but it is suggestive.

"The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in a shadow than in the church."
Ferdinand Magellan

The existence of god and which particular religion has the exclusive pathway to the Almighty is not just a personal issue, after all. Wars are fought over these questions. The most despicable terrorist believes that he is doing the right and moral thing in the name of god. Before we kill in His name ourselves, or even just take someone else's cow, shouldn't we do our best to first consider the house of cards this certainty is built upon? Seek far and wide to find all the evidence you can. Then look at yourself and see what biases you have and try and purge yourself of any starting point assumptions that will taint your judgment of the facts you are considering. It is far more easily said than accomplished and requires constant practice like any other mental discipline.

Some might say that this is an impossible task, that we can never overcome our biases so why bother even trying? If there are people like Galileo out there freed from such handicaps, is it simply because they are different and were born that way?

 

Seeing Like an Artist

            When I teach drawing, I see students confront a very similar problem, one that I struggled to overcome just as much as anyone else. "Draw what you see," my own teacher told me and I thought this sounded rather simplistic and basic instruction. What else would one do, after all?

But every time I tried drawing a three-quarter view of a face, I'd end making it look like it was straight on. When I had an angle of the figure with foreshortening, I'd end up making the foreshortened limb longer and not going large enough in the part that was closest to me. When I tried street scenes, I'd naturally make the tops of the buildings level, unconsciously ignoring the fact that they were actually tilted downward toward a vanishing point because of perspective. As soon as my teacher pointed these errors out to me I saw them instantly and corrected them, only to have them slowly drift back into the same sort of error when I wasn't paying attention. Stranger still, every beginning student was making precisely the same errors. Only the more advanced students seemed actually capable of drawing what they truly saw before them. Were they simply born with some special ability I wasn't? What the heck was going on!

            "You are drawing what your mind thinks it knows about the world rather than what it actually sees," Mr. Parks explained to us patiently. I now realize how completely right Mr. Parks was. We are used to looking at people straight-on when interacting with them, so that is the unconscious template your mind uses as a sort of short-cut to remember people. Our mind "knows" how long a leg is and how large a foot is in proportion to a body so it doesn't want to believe the truth of what it really looks like when foreshortened. We "know" that the tops of buildings are level, so our mind has us draw it that way even though that is not really how it looks.

Learning to shut off these biases and see the visual world as it actually is takes an artist years of continuous mental effort and practice. This is what is meant by "seeing like an artist."

One curious exception to this universal "handicap" is someone who is severely autistic. If you've ever seen drawings of children with autism, they are startling in their realism and far beyond the stick-figure representation of other children. They draw the literal shapes before them as they actually are right from the start. This is because the part of their brain that contextualizes the world is damaged. Basically, this means the template function of their mind that is telling them what things should look like is turned off. They have no trouble seeing and drawing what is actually before them because there is no bias present. They do not "know" that the tops of buildings should be level, but have to look each time as if it were their first encounter with whatever comes before them.

You might think this would be a blessing to always see the truth, to never have your mind fool you, but these mental shortcuts and preexisting templates were evolved for useful reasons most of us take for granted. One consequence of this aspect of severe autism is the extreme difficulty for such individuals to distinguish between faces or read expressions. Many autistic individuals can't even recognize their own immediate family members. When we meet someone, our minds simply refer to the template of a standard face and remembers only a few of the features that deviate from the norm.

To try and memorize every single line and shape takes a huge amount of memory and, even then, such a detailed mental rendering is all but useless when you meet someone in a slightly different light or angle. This is precisely why teaching computers to recognize faces has proved such a monumental task. Even with a clear photograph in its memory, the real world will never produce exactly the same conditions for a face to match what came before.

 


The fact that our brains can accomplish such instantaneous recognition of something as subtle as a human face or a fleeting expression has it's drawbacks as well. 

For most, the need to turn off this highly evolved system we use in daily life never arises, so people are generally completely unaware that they are doing it at all. This is why it is such a shock for all of us when we try and draw our first portrait from life and are confronted by the lies that end up on our paper. I remember feeling betrayed by my own eyes and mind when Mr. Parks first pointed out the errors I'd made.  

It makes one wonder what else they are taking for granted and not really seeing with unbiased eyes.

 

I've Seen the Light!      
And it is Surprisingly Dark...

Learning to turn off these mental biases when needed is difficult, but can be accomplished by anyone who simply puts forth the effort and practices analyzing the things before our eyes as they truly are. The same is true with all the mental biases that distort our analysis of what we believe. It can be done, but it isn't easy and few ever bother attempting to overcome our mind's natural biases and really see the world as it is. If you succeed in freeing yourself even a little, you are in for surprises no less astonishing than those Galileo saw.

As technology moves us farther and farther into an age where we will be able to unleash destructive forces and diseases undreamt of by our ancestors, I don't think we can continue indulging in the self-serving fantasies our leaders have used to control us in the past. When two groups say that god gave them the same patch of ground, how can there be any compromise? What happens when both sides acquire nuclear weapons? How ironic that we are gaining these scientific wonders by men and woman who don't believe in god, but are in danger of destroying ourselves when those discoveries fall into the hands of the most fanatical believers in god. We hear the slogan "guns don't kill, people do." Could it be that the greatest danger humanity faces isn't actually technology, but the primitive beliefs that have outlived their usefulness?

I don't think god and religion are the problem themselves, but merely a symptom of the underlying issue. After all, humans are quite adept at coming up with all manner of self-serving excuses to justify their deeds. If I am right in my analysis of religion, then god never actually commanded the would-be Israelites to massacre the residents of an entire country and ethnic group. god was merely the fall-guy, the justification that helped sooth the innate conscience of people who might have felt guilty about such a deed. Such was the case with the many American Churches that looked to the Bible to justify slavery in this county. No, the real problem is our willingness to ignore reality and fall time and again for con men that use our lack of skepticism for their own ends.

When you suspend your critical thinking in one area, you are uniquely vulnerable to others. I read recently that people are far more likely to fall into a financial scam by those they know at church than anywhere else. Think of Bernard Maddhof, who ran the biggest pyramid investment scheme ever. Is it a coincidence that so many of his investors were met through religious connections? Did the fact of their mutual belief cause them to take his honesty more for granted and skip the normal demands of transparency one might insist upon normally of a money manager? I would guess it did. Religion itself was not the problem here, but the way it can often short-circuit our logical process.

"The first clergyman was the first rascal who met the first fool"
Voltaire

As I write this essay, here's an e-mail I received this very day that illustrates the way people try taking advantage of the fact that people are more vulnerable when something is associated with religion.

Beloved One,


Please don't cry for me after reading my message because my spirits and my soul will rest in the bosom of the lord in the next three months. Having known my health condition I have decided to donate a sum of $5.5 Million to church or better still a Christian individual that will utilize this money according to my wish.

I want a church or individual that will use money to fund churches, orphanages and widows propagating the word of
god.I took this bold decision because I am not afraid of death hence my soul is going to be in the bosom of the lord. Exodus 14 vs. 14 says that the lord will fight my case and I shall hold my peace.

Waiting to hear your opinion via my  Email address **************

Best Regards
Mrs.Karen Saliba

            The way such scams work is that you would supply your bank account information for the funds to be transferred to you so you could decide how best to use them in the good works, but you'd soon find your bank account empty instead. Of course such scams exist outside of a religious context as well, but it is telling that they are especially effective when wrapped in a religious cloak.

Let's follow the logic that might be applied in such a case. If you take for fact that god is working directly through your church for good, then it would follow he is having a positive moral influence on those who are members, and so it follows very logically that you should be able to trust these people far more than anyone not of the church who is lacking in this beneficial influence. Further, it might seem that god would simply not allow someone to use His church for bad purposes. As the saying goes, you better be careful of what you say in god's name or a lightning bolt might very well strike you dead (I imagine such is the logic of having someone swear to tell the truth with their hand on a Bible in a "secular" court of law). Would god allow such a person to steal money from one of his devoted believers using his own name as a cover? As long as the first premise is true, all the rest might follow very logically. The fact that so many cons succeed might cause one to wonder....

 

God Bless America(ns)    

            Using similar logic has led to some strange conclusions throughout the history of our county. Here are a couple of examples based on the idea that god is paying special attention to the well-being of the United States since we are a "Christian" nation.

It was assumed early in our history that the fact that someone won the presidency was proof that god wanted him in this office and would protect him from harm while he was serving the will of the Almighty. Because of this, the idea that the President needed any special protection seemed absurd. Who could possibly do a better job than god at protecting the President? The failed attempt to assassinate Andrew Jackson seemed to confirm this logic when both of the guns the would-be assassin fired at Jackson's heart failed to go off. Unfortunately, just a few decades later, god seems to have been off-duty when John Wilkes Booth pulled the trigger. It is hard to argue that Lincoln was any less moral than the slave-holding Jackson. Of course there is the possibility that god was merely rewarding Lincoln early for his service by taking him to Heaven, but subsequent presidents have opted for armed protection even so, with varying degrees of success even then.

The Indians often used similar logic when their holy men told them their god would protect them from the bullets of their adversaries. With such assured protection, why bother to seek shelter when attacking? I think we know how that story ended.

            Another example is detailed in the book, "Cadillac Desert, A history of Water in the West." John Wesley Powell, who was the first to explore the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon (despite having lost an arm in the Civil War), among numerous other expeditions out west, argued that the government plans of encouraging settlement and farming west of the 100th parallel was crazy because there simply wasn't enough rainfall in this semi-arid desert for such endeavors.

The answer Powel was given by nearly everyone in charge in Congress and elsewhere was the theory of "water will follow the plow." This was based on the logic that god would surely cause more rain to fall in areas that Christian farmers settled. The government sent settlers by the thousands to start their farms but the rain never materialized. Eventually the new technologies of dams and the centrifugal pump saved some of the farmers. It is possible that god caused these inventions in lieu of rain, but one wonders what He will do next as these sources are running out with the rapid draining of the ancient groundwater sources such as the Ogallala Aquifer. The "dust bowl" of the thirties put the final nail in the coffin of this theory when planting crops unsuited to such a semi-arid climate caused all the topsoil to simply blow away when a cyclical dry spell hit after all the drought resistant grasses that would have protected the soil had been plowed under.

I think it was last year that the Governor of Georgia, after following terribly wasteful water conservation policies for years, faced a draught and went on television to ask all Georgians to pray to god for rain. This is not an illogical policy if you are sure of your religious convictions, but I think a more wise procedure to follow might be the old saying, "god helps those who help themselves." This, at least, covers all the bases.

Generally the zealots blame the victims of such disasters, saying they'd brought it upon themselves for some infraction or other. As I tell any of the artists who've studied with me, "I take all the credit for your successes and leave the blame for your failures to you." I guess my own success and lack of lightning-bolt scars must be awkward for the faithful, but I'm sure the odds of life will eventually catch up with me as with everyone and they will piously shake their heads in knowing approbation as I receive the fruits of my blasphemy. At least I will have brought some joy into a few lives.

 

Freedom of O-religion-ality

Why should I, or anyone else, care what someone's private religious belief is? I firmly agree that such beliefs are everyone's absolute right, at least as long as they don't infringe on someone else's rights. The problem is that when you have such a starting point as powerful as the Creator of the universe giving you commands, they rarely stay an individual concern, as I've already touched upon with such crimes as are detailed in the Bible itself. Modern history is no different.

If you are a woman in Saudi Arabi, a very technologically modern country, you are told what to wear and not allowed even the freedom to do something as basic as drive a car or walk outside your house unaccompanied by a man. No matter if the god who demands these and other rules isn't one you believe in, the rules are imposed upon you. In this country people use the justification of denying gay people the same rights as others based on the "fact" that the Bible says it's wrong. Until recently, being gay itself was even illegal in much of this county. Even though I know the Bible better than most believers, I refuse to debate the point of what the Bible says about this or anything other public policy issue because it is irrelevant. To impose your god and morals on someone else who doesn't hold your same religious views is just as wrong as what some Muslims impose on woman. The marriage of gay men or woman is no one's business other than their own, because it does not infringe on anyone else's rights, period. If you think the fact of two people getting married somehow hurts your marriage or corrupts the morals of your children, this is your fault, not theirs.

I can see both sides of issues like abortion and can respectfully discuss and disagree with someone on such morally complicated topics. I can even accept submitting myself to the will of the majority on many issues I don't agree with, but when the argument is used that such-and-such should be legislated because it is the Bible, the Koran, or whatever other religious text, my response is that it is fine as long as it applies only to people who believe in that religion voluntarily. Since laws are not voluntary and apply to believers and non-believers alike, then I don't think there is a place for a religious argument in justifying any law. Period! If your religion tells you it is morally abhorrent to eat carrots, then don't eat them. But don't try and pass a law that forces all the rest of us to forgo the delights of that wondrous orange miracle of nature. Ok, I'll admit I can't think of the last time I ate a carrot, but I still like having the option!


Woman have certainly suffered disproportionately from religious doctrine. How can one argue against such rules if they are believed to be the commands of god?

"Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" I think this quote would be even more accurate if you started it with the word "Women" instead of "Men."
Denis Diderot

            The logic of god can also lead public officials down paths of logic every bit as strange as the idea that god will create rain if farmers plant their fields in the desert.  After all, if the widely believed idea that we are living in End Times is your starting point, what is the necessity in thinking a hundred years into the future about energy needs or environmental protection? If you think the Earth is only six-thousand years old, is there any surprise you find studies assessing the threat of Global Warming unconvincing when they are based on ice core samples that are used to study the temperature of the planet going back hundreds of thousands of years?

Having absolutely no doubt you are right about god, no matter which religion you belong to, does impact wider society. This doesn't mean you have to give up your belief, but I find such absolute certainty of something based on so little evidence both astounding and dangerous. I honestly admit I may be wrong and any of the hundreds of religious theories out there may be right. All I'm asking is that everyone else admit the same.

 

Too Ridiculous?    

In general, I find the lack of critical thinking frustrating. On a daily basis I get forwarded e-mails from people with outrages claims about fake government bills that will give all the money in social security to Mexican Immigrants, ridiculous allegations about political candidates, and countless other nonsense. Some of the e-mails even say things like, "Just click this link to such-and-such a website if you don't believe me." Or, "this was reported in the New York Times." Invariably, when I try to follow the link or look up the referenced article, I find it does not exist. This means that the person who believes these claims at least enough to forward it to me, did not even do something as basic as check out the links in the very e-mail they are forwarding or do the most basic Google search. Not to mention the obvious logical contradictions raised by the claims themselves. We hear how information is more available than anytime in human history and yet it seems few bother to even try and find it.

            One of the e-mails I received during the recent presidential campaign stated that someone within the CIA knew of classified information that Barack Obama was actually born in Pakistan and was an undercover sleeper agent who would turn out to be a "Manchurian Candidate" if elected to office and attempt to destroy the United State. Does it make sense that someone in the CIA who knew such information would release it through an anonymous e-mail rather than go to the news or someone in government? After all, the claim would put the entire country at risk. You might think this an especially extreme example that few people would take seriously, but I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign and spent a great deal of time while canvassing door-to door reassuring people who'd gotten this e-mail and similar phone calls that it wasn't true. It didn't take much more than applying the same sort of logic I used above to convince them of the outlandishness of such nonsense, but I wondered why they hadn't made such arguments in their own minds to start with.


"Andrea's Flag" oil, 40" by 30"

            I am very conservative on many issues myself and welcome a logical, fact-based debate on issues that will help elect the best candidate for president. I have no problem with those who disagree with me on the issues and vote for someone I'm not, but when you start making decisions based on obvious distortions and outright lies, then the entire point of elections and democracy vanishes. As has been observed many times, Democracy is only as good as the voters themselves. If they are not willing to educate themselves on the issues and think critically, this will be reflected in the leaders who get elected. Remember this every time you criticize the government because it is a very clear reflection of those that put it there.

Once you've gotten into the habit of suspending critical thinking on claims as large as religion it is an easy thing doing so on other matters as well. This is doubly true when you already have an unconscious bias, be it a racial, political, religious, etc. The bias can go either way, sometimes leading you to the wrong conclusion for something that is actually bad, or against something that is actually good.

What if we actively taught children the skills of critical thinking and evaluating evidence from an early age, rather than teaching them to simply accept things at face value? What would the world be like if ninety-five percent of people looked at the world as critically as Copernicus and Galileo did? Certainly we would be far less vulnerable to all the scams and manipulations I've detailed above.

            Maybe Santa Clause is the best lesson we can teach our children after all. Maybe my Mother should have said to me on those stairs, "Look at how easily you were fooled, be careful of simply taking someone's, anyone's, word on something without proof, especially something really important." Since it was such a shock to me at the time, I still remember it clearly now, so maybe this was exactly the lesson I got in any case. Maybe it is exactly this lesson that later led me to question my own faith as I learned more about it and other religions? How ironic that we celebrate both god and Santa together on the same day. Could it be they are more similar than most would like to admit?

 

Which Torture Methods would Jesus Prefer?

My last point deals with the debate of whether or not we are better off believing in god even if He doesn't exist. Certainly there are many good things religions have accomplished throughout history to balance all the negatives I've already mentioned above. This idea is irrelevant to the central truth of god's existence or not, but I think it is an interesting point nonetheless.

            One acquaintance of mine claimed that without religion and the fear of punishment by god, people would have no morality. If I proved there was no god, I asked him, would he start cheating on his wife, murdering people, etc.? I don't believe in god, so if religious people are only good out of fear of Hell, then I must be a far better person than they because I don't cheat on my wife, murder people and even give to charity, volunteer with the needy and all the rest even without such a fear. My guess is that I'm not any better than them and that those who are good people would remain good and those who are cheats, liars, and criminals would continue to be.

            I further note that most of the laws and freedoms we cherish in this country were based on ideas of men from Europe who were atheists. Why did they care so much about human freedom and morality if they didn't fear god? Why were so many of the prominent opponents of slavery atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers? Possibly the morals I gained from my early belief in god simply remained even after my faith in god had fallen away, but I think it has a lot more to do with what my parents taught me about right and wrong, independent of religion itself. I don't think it takes a fear of god to see the justice and logic of the Golden Rule.

            I've known a great many religious people who do all manner of horrendous things outside of church. I wonder if there is a larger proportion of atheists in prison? I would highly doubt it, but this would be an illuminating fact. I note that doubt of god seems to increase in proportion to the level of education a person achieves. Since greater education also lessens a person's likely to go to prison, my guess is that the number of atheists in prison is even lower than the general population. 

           What about countries that don't have a high belief in god, but that are similar to us in most other ways? Stalin was an atheist, but to list the monsters of history that were religious would go on for pages.

Many that claim moral superiority for the Christian religion in particular say that our nation was founded on Christian morals with the Bible as its model. This godly sanction is supposedly the reason for the freedoms and superior moral tenets of our Constitution. Ok, aside from "minor" quibbles like slavery, Native American genocide, woman's rights, etc., let's assume this is correct. Let's even set aside the bad example of the many oppressive regimes that went before in Europe that were more directly led by Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. Let's even set aside the obvious objection one might raise of the importance of the separation of Church and State that the founders battled so hard to get included in the Constitution. (The book "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism" by Susan Jacoby is a fantastic book on this subject.) 

Here's a few quotes by some of the Founders of our country. You may draw your own conclusions whether or not they based the Constitution and the Bill of Rights on the the Bible, or whether they thought our freedoms dependent on keeping Religion out of government altogether.

"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government." - Thomas Jefferson

"In no instance have . . . the churches been guardians of the liberties of the people."
James Madison

"Lighthouses are more helpful than churches."
Benjamin Franklin

"...the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.
James Madison

          Certainly it is a fact that the large majority of our citizens believe in some variant of the Christian faith. Are the citizens of our country, therefore, more moral than the rest of the world's nations in general that are non-Christian? I'm talking about the actual people here, not the government itself, which would be an even more complicated question.

Our country is certainly the most prosperous, so you would expect a higher degree of contentment to start with. If I were a lawyer representing the rest of the world, I might point out that the United States constitutes 5% of the world's population but houses 25% of all the prison inmates of the world. If the Christian faith is so conducive to a higher standard of morality, then why is it forced to punish so many of its citizens for moral failings? But maybe it's just that our higher moral standards cause us to have less tolerance of moral failings (such as drug use?) than other countries. But when you compare actual crime rates across the world, we still come out poorly in comparison. I certainly don't blame Christianity in general for this, but it does suggest that our morality is not significantly increased in general by our particular faith in comparison to others, even if it turns out ours is the one, true faith.

Many people I know contend that even religions that are false (all those except Christianity, in their view) still serve the purpose of enforcing morality on their followers. There is a good chance this is true to some greater or lesser extent, in my view. After all, in addition to keeping the lower caste members of Hindu society from rising up in revolution, the promise of the reward of being born into a higher station in the next life motivates a lot of people to live more morally than they might otherwise. No doubt the same is true with Heaven and Hell to many Christian believers. Since one (or both) of these contradictory religious beliefs has to be incorrect in its premise, it seems that we can conclude fairly safely that a false religion can positively influence a person's morality and actions.

The reason we can't say this definitively is that we don't know for sure if that person would act less morally in the absence of any religious belief. Like me, might they not find some other rational for respecting the rights of their fellow in any case? Here is the crucial question, even if this theory is true. Does such positive moral influences outweigh the negative ones of proven dangers of convincing someone to become a suicide bomber or not demanding human rights for themselves or the children, as in the case of the class of untouchables in places like India, etc.?

"Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet."  
Napoleon Bonaparte

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Poverty is seen as a natural thing by many in India; again the belief of caste playing a major role. While being born into a low caste means you can never rise above it theoretically, until you are reborn in the next life, it also means that the higher castes feel duty-bound by religious rules to give to the poor in order to keep from slipping to a lower caste when they die.

One of my friends stated that he always felt safer when seeing a group of outwardly religious people because he knew they were undoubtedly of higher morality. Well, I wonder if his sense of safety is a consequence of them simply being religious or of them being similar to him. What if he was an escaped slave a couple hundred years ago and the congregation in question was white Plantation owners? How about a Protestant in Northern Ireland walking by as a Catholic Church let out or vice-a-versa? Or a girl walking back from school in Afghanistan when a Taliban Mosque let its congregation out? Myself, I put much more faith in teaching the Golden Rule to our children by word and example, and leaving the punishment to a secular police.

            I realize this sort of argument could go on for a long time and I don't really feel I have enough evidence to say conclusively that the world would be a better place if religion vanished or the opposite. Possibly it is more essential of a factor in civilization and morality than I think and, without religion to hold things together, no matter how fatuous, everything would collapse. Maybe, as Jack Nicholson famously said, "You can't handle the Truth!" Maybe humans can't. What a depressing thought.

            This is certainly the argument the Vatican used when silencing Galileo. Even if true, they reasoned, knowledge that the Earth wasn't the center of the universe would damage people's faith, which would destroy their morals and threaten all of society. Therefore, they ordered him to keep quiet about it no matter the truth of his findings. After finally giving in to save his life and recanting his theory of the Earth's circuit around the sun instead of being immovable, Galileo is said to have muttered, "And yet it moves." These words are probably apocryphal, but apt in any case.

            Truth lost the battle but eventually won the war in this case and the knowledge that we aren't the center of the universe didn't prove to be the end of civilization, or even Christianity. In fact it marked the beginning of a new revival in science historians call the dawn of the Age of Reason. After a brief false start with the Greeks, humanity had finally come out of childhood and begun to think critically like an adult should. How sad if we were to repeat history and fall back into the same trap again and use god as the crutch to throw it all away and retreat back into the darkness of superstition.

 

It is said there are no atheists in foxholes, which is why I avoid foxholes!

            Other than the instinctive reaction to sudden danger, I don't fear death in the long-term. I don't dwell on it or dread the fact that it might come at any moment. If there is no afterlife or reincarnation or any of the other options variously pedaled? If, to be blunt, there is nothing at all, then I will no longer be capable of thinking or feeling or suffering. Certainly I won't experience the joys of life, but neither the pain. I don't fear the loss of these things when I go to sleep, or of their absence in the billions of years before I was born, so why should I fear them on a permanent basis when I die? I try to make the most of my life by learning all I can, sharing whatever I've learned as openly as possible, and contributing some small bit of myself to the greater organism that is humanity.

 Religion doesn't impose a purpose for me to serve in the greater scheme of things, but neither is it telling me I must remain content with being a slave, serf, untouchable, or forbidden to use my mind to understand all I possibly can. I am free to create my own purpose and I have done that. I don't know all the answers and am content with the knowledge that I never will. No story is worth following without some mystery in it, after all.


"Far Away" oil, 30" by 26"
Life is about searching for truth and this quest generally starts with books at a young age, transporting us back in time and into the minds of others across the globe. What book do you imagine this girl reading? 

I enjoy life, but am not the sort of person who will try to extend it when I can no longer live productively or happily. I don't want to be kept alive on machines once there is little possibility that I will ever be able to pursue meaningful interests again. I don't care to suffer a long, drawn-out decline of pain and humiliation. I would have no problem ending my own life in such a situation and starting my extended sleep early. I've always enjoyed climbing into bed at the end of the day, tired from a stimulating adventure of painting, traveling, or being with those I love and who love me. I have no doubt I will feel the same then.

            If I am wrong about what happens after death, it will not be for lack of an honest search for the truth. Pascal's wager tells us that the logical choice is to believe in god because if you are wrong and there is nothing, you are no worse off; but if there is a god and you are wrong, then you will regret your choice for all of eternity. But is it really good to simply shut one's intellect off and believe something your logic has told you is untrue? Is it actually possible? If so, have we really lost nothing by shutting off our capacity to reason?

"Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions."
Blaise Pascal

            Even if I accept the wisdom of Pascal's wager, I'm still left with the dilemma of which of the multitude of religions to choose from. How do I go about comparing them if I've set aside the tools of critical thinking to start with? If god does exist, then my critical thinking skills came to the wrong conclusion and might lead me astray here as well. So how to choose between all the religions based on faith alone? Should I just stick with the one I was born into like most do and keep my fingers crossed?

Someone told me about an episode of the animated TV show "South Park" where the characters die and find themselves in Hell. They look around and see all sorts of religions represented. One of them asks who was right, which religion's followers made it to Heaven. "It was the Mormons," someone tells them. They slap their heads in consternation at their mistake, exclaiming, "The Mormons!"

If I am wrong about the god of my childhood faith or one of the others I wasn't born into and He decides I deserve punishment for following the intellect He endowed me with, so be it. All I will be able to say in my defense is that I tried my best. That is all any of us can say. Maybe your best is better than mine.

"Question with boldness even the existence of god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear." 
Thomas Jefferson

I might inquire why all the Saints and Apostles are given so much credit and adulation for their faith in Him when He favored them with such direct proof of His existence that I was denied. Saint Paul, after all, was a confirmed non-believer like I am now before god intervened directly and violently with proof even he couldn't question. Surely the game of faith is not played on a level field.

I certainly understand that the vast majority of those who have gotten this far through my ramblings on this subject will disagree with me. If I have added a few thoughts you hadn't considered, that's all I aspire to. Each of us must look at the facts before us and try our best to make up our own minds.

I hope you don't hold my honesty against me, but I'm sure many will. Preachers, Politicians, and Conservative talk show hosts alike often denounce secularists, atheists, etc. as the worst evils in our society. Just for fun, substitute Blacks or Jews in the place of atheist or secularist and see what kind of reaction these very same rants would then ignite.

 

 Political (and Artistic) Suicide?     

            The one thing I'm sure this latest essay will set to rest is the idea my last essay put into many people's mind that I had some kind of aspirations of getting into politics myself. Here in North Carolina, Kay Hagan's opponent for the senate ran a television add that implied she was an atheist. It even showed a picture of her while a woman's voice shouted, "There is no god!" (not Kay Hagan saying this, but a voice-over added by her opponent to imply it was.) Kay Hagan pointed out she was a Decan in her church and all the newspapers and TV news stepped up to the plate to defend such "disgusting" lies and allegations. The backlash against such slander seemed to propel her to an even larger victory than she might have accomplished. Some of the editorials said there was no worse allegation someone could make in North Carolina against a politician running for office. Nothing worse? Child molesters, rapists, murders, all seem above the unbeliever.

             Since first writing this essay, it's been brought to my attention that the North Carolina Constitution itself disqualifies me legally from ever holding office in any case. 

ARTICLE VI

SUFFRAGE AND ELIGIBILITY TO OFFICE

Sec. 8. Disqualifications for office.

The following persons shall be disqualified for office:

First, any person who shall deny the being of Almighty god.

You can read the full NC constitution here if you think I'm making this up. 
http://statelibrary.ncdcr.gov/NC/STGOVT/article_vi.HTM

In 1961 the Supreme Court ruled that all such state bans against atheist were unconstitutional, but I don't think there is much chance any out-of-the-closet atheist will be wining any office in North Carolina to test the decision. For all the talk of separation of church and state, democracy has its own way of imposing religious tests at the voting booth.

            Abraham Lincoln's faith was in question when he ran for office and he was told he would have no chance if he didn't settle the issue by joining a church. He refused and won anyway and never did join a church even while in office. After his death, both atheist and various religious denominations tried claiming him as one of their own; some even going as far as to fake proof and make up stories to support their claims. We will probably never know what his views on god were, and I really don't think it matters much either way. If he was an unbeliever, he no doubt knew he would disqualify himself from ever attaining a position to make a difference in government so had no choice but to keep silent. I have little doubt there are people who proclaim their faith as a cynical political strategy to cover up their other shortcomings.

            I give this essay as a gift to any future political opponent just in case I ever become tempted to run for office someday. Hopefully it will keep me safely painting rather than falling into that den of moral ambiguity we call politics. But who knows, maybe it would be even worse if unbelievers like me were added!

            I do not "believe" in god, but nor do I know god doesn't exist. I shy away from the term "Agnostic" since I feel it implies an equal likelihood either way and I am far more skeptical of the existence of such a being than that. I cannot prove that Zeus, fairies, etc. don't exist either, but I don't feel the odds are 50/50 for their reality. 

"Faith is believin' what you know ain't so."
Mark Twain

             If you asked me what was contained behind a door I'd never entered I'd say I don't know. If a thousand people all reported something different in that room; how to tell who was telling the truth? If I learned that none of them had actually been in the room themselves, but were reporting second-hand information from witnesses from thousands of years ago, and that the room's contents made it mandatory that I dedicate my life to doing what they told me to, I would be even more skeptical. I might even conclude that they were making up a story about what was in there to serve their own agendas. My own guess would be that whatever was in the room, it was most likely not what any of these people thought was in there. It is even possible that the door was merely nailed over a wall and there wasn't even a room at all, but had been simply put there by some ancient trickster of a carpenter to fool his gullible fellows.  

             In such a case, I would have no belief as to what is behind the door just as I have no "belief" in a god, in fairies, etc. Thus, I call myself an atheist in the strictest sense of the definition of having no belief in god (literally, the word means "without god"). 

              I apologize if this essay comes across negatively, or as a personal attack on anyone. I thoroughly support everyone's right to their beliefs in whatever god they have determined is the truth as long as it leaves room for other people to disagree. I fully admit I may be wrong and you right. If I am, it is merely my own shortcomings of intelligence and reason in comparison to your own. I am certainly not conveying my thoughts about this matter out of anger or malice, but only to further all of our search for the truth. 

            We all have our ups and downs, but I thoroughly enjoy my godless life. I see inspiration and reason for rejoicing in the beauty of nature, in the smile of a child, and in the kindness of one human for another. Every time I learn something new that makes me stop in my tracks and realize something I was blind to before, I feel humbled and in awe of the marvelous complexity and working of the universe. Maybe this is god. You have but to look at my paintings to see my inspiration, my personal higher power. I paint that which inspires and enriches my life. I've never liked painting negative things since there is plenty of that in the world already without my adding to it. I hope in painting this intangible quality of life to learn more about it and to convey it to someone else who may be searching as well. Truth is what we all seek. It is all about us if we will but open our eyes and minds and shake off the blindfolds of convention and comforting lies used to drug us into slumber. I cannot express properly in words the liberation I feel at being freed of those who would try and force me to live, believe, and think as they order, rather than as my own conscience dictates. Life is too short and precious to spend asleep or enslaved!

             Maybe someday god will speak to me personally and perform some miracles that prove beyond a doubt that He exists. Maybe he will confirm the fact that he did, indeed, give the Maasai all the cows in the world and their religion is the one and only truth and all the rest are man-made fakes. I'll have no problem believing such first-hand evidence. Should He command me to then go out and tell the rest of the world this fact, to relate the miracles he used to convince me, and then tell everyone in the world to please return their cows to the Maasai, I think I might very politely and humbly suggest that a more effective way of convincing everyone else would be to handle it personally. Should He still insist that I was the man for the job, I am skeptical that my story would go over that well with the ranchers I know in Montana and Texas. Even if I knew I was right, could I blame them for not believing me? Could god blame them?

            Well, that's all I have to say for now. Some people go on drinking binges: I go on writing binges. I've had enough and it's time to sober up and get back to painting!

Scott Burdick (-:

Here's an interview below with historian, Dr. Richard Carrier, that discusses some of these topics.

 

Here's some links to Yotube programs by Carl Sagan and others on some of the subjects covered here. Thanks to my friend, artist Steve Gefrom, for sending them to me.

Carl Sagan - A thousand years of darkness
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eh0eM4tAISQ&feature=related

Our Place in the Universe - Carl Sagan
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AUF38eHqdxs&NR=1

An interesting video on Atheism
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdVucvo-kDU&feature=related

 

  

 

 

 

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