Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Atheism: the truth about it

What exactly is atheism?  Before I discuss the arguments we get from theists (i.e. people who believe in gods and the religious dogma they get from their holy texts), I would like to point out that it is not a a religion. 

A religion is defined by sociologists as:

1) A standardised belief in some or other deity and the worship of that deity;

2) A dogma around the practice of the belief in that deity;

3) A set of rituals of ceremonials that involve the worship of that deity; and

4) The appointment of a hierarchy of - mostly men - to decide on the rituals, dogma and process of practicing the worship of the deity. 

So, looking at these points:

1) There is no standard for atheism. A popular meme is that trying to standardise atheism is like trying to herd cats. There is also no deity worshipped by atheists. Most people who declare themselves to be "atheists" regard all gods as mere mythical beings, not to be believed in as real, or to be worshipped.

2) Thus there is no dogma. There is no decided standard, because there are people who do not believe in "God" but who do believe in alternative medicine and astrology and that global climate change is a myth. There is also no trademark on the term "atheist," the only possible way that someone may identify themselves publicly as an atheist would be if they adopted the "A" symbol as an avatar or wore it on a t-shirt. Mostly we don't wear identifying symbols.

3) There are no rituals involved, unless writing weblogs or books is a ritual. Atheists do tend to write a lot about why they don't believe.

5) There is no hierarchy. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris are not our priests, and Christopher Hawkins would spin in his grave if anyone dared to declare him a "saint." 

Now, having got that out of the way, and having demonstrated that it is not a religion, I shall continue to debunk some other memes that abound on the internet about atheism.

1) Where do we get our morals? Humans and most other animals are born with innate morality. Even apes in the jungle have to be taught to murder members of their own species. We don't need to be taught morality, it is a natural part of being a sentient being, as may be seen from the thousands of images on websites demonstrating how other animals take care of the young of other species. We are taught to be immoral by our nurturing. People who are natural killers are called "psychopaths" and "sociopaths" by psychology, and usually they are that way because they are taught to be cruel by their upbringing. Most children have a natural empathy. That is where we get our morality, and it is that which prevents us from committing crime. 

2) We are not "rebelling" to "make a point." Nor do we want to outlaw religion or "believe" in some alternative belief system, as demonstrated in my explanation above. Most people who have used their disbelief in deities to expand their learning into other fields, also tend to use critical thinking in their learning and thereby to question everything they are taught, asking for "evidence" before they'll accept what they are told. Religion teaches people to close their minds to conflicting evidence, but to blindly accept whatever they are told, particularly that which is told to them by other religious people. When they say that they "question," what they are told, they usually mean that they question what disbelievers tell them. Questioning what you are told, especially about religion, is evidence of open, rather than closed-mindedness.

3) We don't have to prove that "God" doesn't exist. We didn't invent him, nor do we believe he exists, therefore atheism does not have to prove the non-existent any more than people who don't believe in Santa Claus have to prove that he doesn't exist.

4) We are told that "most people believe in God" and that we are "surrounded by evidence" for him, with the human eye being cited as that evidence. To refute this, I shall quote my mother who used to say "if most of your friends jump off a cliff, would you do it too." Just because large numbers of people believe something, it doesn't make it true. Also why the "human" eye, why not the eyes of bees, or birds who have far better sight than humans? If human eyes are so special, how come they deteriorate at a very young age? Most modern humans have to have assistance with their sight by the time they are in their middle 30s. How does the "greatness of the human eye" account for cataracts and sun-blindness? God did not create the mountains, or the forests, mountains were created by the movement of the tectonic plates, and the world's forests evolved from the first plants that took root millions of years ago. 

5) What is the reason for your life? Aren't you afraid of hell? Why don't you just believe, just in case (Pascal's Wager)? The answers are simply: there is no reason for any animal's life except the perpetuation of the species. What is the purpose of a life that dies at birth? There is no purpose, you were dead before you were born, you'll be dead after you die. All the eggs your mother expelled in her menstrual flow or in the dozens of lost pregnancies throughout her life (yes, a lot of fertilised eggs are expelled as menstruation - google it) and the eggs that weren't fertilised and the other more than a million sperm cells expelled by your father in night time emissions as a teenager and during intercourse, they were all prospective life. So what was their purpose? As you can see, I don't care about hell, because when I die, I'll go back to being the stardust I was before I was born.

6) Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, were all atheists! No they were not. Hitler's soldiers wore a badge on their uniforms that said "Gott mit us" (God with us), Hitler himself invoked the name of Jesus in many of his speeches, especially in rants about the Jews being "Christ-killers." The other two were communists, their religion was communism. They merely replaced "God" for a hammer and sickle, their churches were the offices of their tyranny and their priests were the people who carried out their bidding; in the same way that the Pope sits in the Vatican and sends out priests to carry out his instructions in their cathedrals and churches. They were not "atheists" because they rejected "God" who they believed was real, and replaced the worship of him with the worship of their ideology, and Karl Marx.

7) The devil, prayer, hell, etc. do not exist and they do not work. Being an atheist does not include the worship of the devil. We do not pray and personally, I've recently have evidence of its inefficacy when people "prayed" for me to sell my house and someone else "prayed" for me to be cured of my chronic illness. 

8) "If you read the Bible, you'll change your mind." As may be seen from this website, I took on this challenge. Rather than change my mind, it confirmed what I'd always thought: that the Bible was based on ancient mythology and that the deity in the Bible was evolved from the deities worshipped by the people whose mythology was adopted. He emerged from the El of ancient Ugarit, Babylon and Canaan to become the JHWH of the Old Testament and later the "God the Father" of Christianity. Reading the Bible from cover to cover is more likely to cause you to stop believing in God than to strengthen your belief. 

9) There are no atheists in foxholes. Having never been in a foxhole, I do not have enough personal experience to comment on this, but I do have a lot of friends who were soldiers during WWII and most of them say that being in the war was what killed their belief in "God." They say that they can't worship a God that would allow that sort of atrocity to happen. 

10) Finally, because I'm obsessive about round numbers. Far from being "intolerant" of religion, personally I am extremely tolerant of people who blindly follow religion. I have a fairly large extended family, some of the members are atheists, others are ambivalent about it, others have some sort of spirituality that they don't discuss, others are devoutly religious. I don't try to convert them. I don't even suggest that they read my blogs, although I read theirs, and comment on them. I have friends who have all sorts of beliefs, and we discuss their beliefs without rancour. They call me a "militant atheist" and that I sometimes come across as "arrogant" which makes me smile because apart from being passionate about the things I enjoy discussing, I mostly live and let live. Far from being arrogant about my knowledge and non-belief, I am rather insecure because every time I learn something, I realise how little I really know. I also know that most of my atheist friends don't go about ringing people's doorbells asking people to "convert" to atheism. Which is a lot more than I can say about theists.


Monday, 23 July 2012

Chapter 6. Adam and Eve and their descendants

To me, the story of the "fall" is merely a morality tale, in this case a story about “lusting” after forbidden fruit. Aesop’s Fables which date back to pre-Herodotus’ days, are taught to most children as part of their “morality” education, and have been since before the current era. The stories of the creation and the fall from grace in Genesis are nothing more than typical morality tales of the first millennium BCE. The fruit is not defined, again the interpretation is left to the theologian. 
As Adam and Eve are about to be thrown out of Eden, they also learn about death, in the killing of their first animal as God clothes them in “coats of skin” in verse 21. Then God says:
Genesis 3:22 ...man is now the same as one of us, we need to send him out into the world so that he has to work or he will think he can live forever in this paradise.
Note the reference to "us" which could be explained as the "royal we." In my interpretation, it indicates polytheism, as it appears in only the early parts of the Old Testament. Also there are references to angels, and ranks of them:
Then ... all the people who dwelt in Egypt ... answered Jeremiah: “We will not listen to you! We will ... burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we have done, we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, were well-off, and saw no trouble.– Jeremiah 44.15-17.
It is possible that the "Queen of Heaven" was Asherah (Astarte) from the religion of the Canaanites, the wife of the senior god in Ugaritic mythology and often thought to have held the position of the wife of the god of the early Israelites, Baal
The Old Testament makes several references to the gods of the people of Canaan. It is therefore clear that, while they were struggling with trying to establish a monotheistic form of religion in the areas occupied by the families of the first settlers, and who became the Jews, they were still under the influence of the general worship of different gods, and among those gods, was the “Queen of Heaven,” Astarte or Asherah.
The evidence for polytheism among the people of Canaan before the exile and the resettlement of Judah in the middle of the first millennium BCE, simply cannot be ignored, nor brushed aside with the idea that JHWH was the only god that these people worshipped. The Old Testament refers to the other gods throughout its text, and one of the reasons for JHWH allowing them to be taken in exile is because of the worship of Baal and other gods. 
Adam and Eve’s two sons, Cain and Abel fight over their gift to their parents; in the fight Cain kills Abel.
Genesis 4:13 Cain said to the LORD, "My punishment is more than I can bear. 14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."
The storyteller admits that there are other people and that these other people do not worship the same god. There’s no explanation about their origin.
17 Cain lay with his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.
Cain went to the “land of Nod” where he started the dynasty that gave birth to further characters in our story. Seth also bore a son who he named Enos. 
Metal-working is mentioned here, “Tubal-cain” the “iron-monger” takes the writing of this verse out of the Bronze Age (about 8000 BCE to 3000 BCE, which is when the first bronze tools and weapons appear. The Hittites of central Turkey are known to have mastered the technique of smelting iron ore, and were hammering on the first blacksmiths’ anvils by about 1400 BCE, which is when the European and Mediterranean Iron Age is said to begin.)
This genealogy taking 5000 BCE as the date for Adam and Eve, would put this descendant of Cain at around 4800 BCE well in the Bronze, and definitely before the Iron Age, and shows that in order to give antiquity to their characters, they cause them to live for a thousand years.
Classically, the Iron Age is taken to begin in the 12th century BCE in the ancient Near East,  this anachronism puts the writing of Genesis 4:22 :
Zillah also bore Tubal-cain; he was the forger of all instruments of bronze and iron.....
...after the Iron Age (1300 to 600 BCE) at least.  
Then, considering that the Babylonian exiles had been living under the influence of Babylon for fifty years, and that there were almost two generations of people who hadn’t known the original Jewish state, when the exiles returned to Jerusalem, it was not to full autonomy as an independent state. Judah fell under Persia as a province:
After the exile, Judah was politically rebuilt as a Persian satrapy, a semi-autonomous administrative province, ruled by a priestly elite that remigrated from Babylonia and whose views and attitudes were shaped by the religious blue-prints for reconstruction drafted in the exile.. 
...the culture of the now ageing population had to have been affected by Babylonian forms of worship. It becomes clear that the religion of Babylon has affected their prophecies and story-telling too, and in particular, the religion of Zoroastrianism.
...This was a philosophy which began in Persia about 600 B.C., and was growing in popularity when Judah went to Babylon / Persia in captivity. This philosophy posited that there was a good god of light (Mazda) and an evil god of darkness (Ahriman). The well known passage in Is. 45:5-7 is a clear warning to the Jews in captivity not to buy into this- Israel's God alone made the light and the darkness, the good and the "evil". But Isaiah is in fact full of other allusions to Zoroastrian ideas, seeking to teach Judah the true position on these things. Thus it was taught that "Saviours will come from the seed of Zoroaster, and in the end, the great Saviour", who would be born of a virgin, resurrect the dead and give immortality. These ideas are picked up in Is. 9:6 and applied prophetically to the ultimate Saviour, Jesus- as if to warn the Jews not to accept the prevalent Persian ideas in this area. Indeed, it appears that [under Divine inspiration] much of the Hebrew Bible was rewritten in Babylon, in order to deconstruct the ideas which Israel were meeting in Babylon…
Ahriman, the Lord of Darkness, is portrayed in Persian bas reliefs as having wings- and hence Satan came to be depicted as having wings, even though the Bible is utterly silent about this. According to Zoroastrianism, Ahriman envied Jupiter/Ohrmazd, and tried to storm Heaven. This mythology was eagerly adapted by the Jews to their myth of some rebellion in Heaven, and was later picked up by writers such as Milton and made standard Christian doctrine- even though the Hebrew Bible is utterly silent about it. It has been commented by a careful, lifelong student of the history of the Devil idea: "In pre-exilic Hebrew religion, Yahweh made all that was in heaven and earth, both of good and of evil. The Devil did not exist.” 
Thus, Adam and Eve, having sinned against God’s direct instruction to not “eat” of the fruit of the forbidden tree, are driven out of Eden. They produce two sons, one of who kills the other and is then sent into exile where he meets people not created by God but arising from somewhere, or something else. He produces descendants who will feature in the next parts of the biblical story, while his mother produces another son. 
The foundation for the build-up to the first extinction of all living creatures is laid, then while these early ancestors are still living, a newcomer to their family has to help God extract punishment from his creations for breaking laws which haven’t yet been defined.
God doesn’t instruct the people to worship him, and only him. He doesn’t tell them to not enjoy their lives. He hasn’t yet instructed them about the first great law, that of cutting off the ends of men’s penises, he merely tells Noah that they’re evil and wicked and that he has to destroy them in order to start his little experiment all over again. This is very important. The first law is given to Abraham, a descendant of Noah. Before that, there were no defined laws, therefore no definition of what wickedness was. 

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Revision: Chapter 1: In the beginning

I have now completed the final edit of the first part of my book that deals with the Old Testament. Over the next weeks, I'll be posting abbreviated versions of the book's chapters for comment.
1. In the Beginning...
The Bible tells us that in the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. Over the next week, he went on to create light, animals, plants, the waters, and finally man to rule over them, or so we are told by our teachers, and the author of the first five books of the Bible, who is, according to tradition, the patriarch, Moses.
This tradition says that an Egyptian prince led the Jews to their promised land. Moses was raised in a palace until adulthood, with his mother and sister as his nursemaids, not tutors, educators, courtiers, advisers etc., but as his childhood nursemaids. After an event that led him to adopt his Jewishness, which according to my research was merely the covenant of circumcision, something that was also part of the Egyptian culture, he was nominated as their leader. Being an Egyptian prince, Moses would have been literate in the Egyptian language, and possibly the language of his mother and sister, who being descended from the children of Jacob, possibly spoke some version of their ancestral language but, more likely would have spoken some form of Egyptian.
However, modern science has allowed us to refute the hypothesis of Moses as the author, especially since his descendants didn't consider it worth preserving anything he may have written.
Reading the Book of Genesis critically, it is fairly obvious that more than one person was responsible for the writing, the two different versions of the creation of humans is ample evidence for this: 
Genesis 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 2:7 And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul...18 And the Lord God said, It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him...21 And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; 22 And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man...25 And they were naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Also “Moses” reports events that happened after his death. The question has to be asked how he described the events immediately preceding and following his death, at the end of Deuteronomy, notably, Chapter 34?
5 So Moses died there…according to the word of the Lord 6 And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab…8…and the children of Israel wept for Moses thirty days…9 And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him. 
The best explanation for how the Pentateuch was written, is explained by the Documentary Hypothesis which I discuss in this post: The Documentary Hypothesis.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks and everything is created: the heavens and the earth, and the transformation from light and land to a planet populated by animals, plants and humans, who are “created in our own image,” in six days, and he rests on the seventh day. 
One of the questions that atheists ask, on reading the creation story, even without knowing of the “Big Bang Theory,” is “how long was the creation day, was it a literal day, or does “day” mean an era, or a period of evolution. I discuss the different points of view of biblical time in this post: Creation: various hypotheses.
As I mentioned earlier, in the second chapter of Genesis, there is the first clue that different people were responsible for the writing. If only one person was writing the story, why would he find it necessary to repeat the story told in the previous chapter, and then leave out the details? The second chapter merely states that everything was created but that there was no one to work the ground. To achieve this, God creates man, and, in so doing, the world’s first slave. 
There is no rain; streams come up from the earth and water the ground, while God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” In the second chapter, there are details about Eden and the four rivers that flowed from there, Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates. There is thus no doubt of where the story is set.
The only explanation I am able to offer for this duplication is that, if different writers did not collaborate on the work, or write it separately, or if the “redactor” deliberately retained both versions of the story, then the intention was to point out that there were two creations of humans: one lot to take care of the land, and the second, to separate the “other” people from the ancestors of the Jewish people, Adam and Eve.
It could merely be that, as the society became aware of other people who didn’t worship their gods, the story tellers made an attempt to explain the other people who were there when Cain was sent out into the “wilderness” after he’d murdered Abel, and that only the descendants of Seth, the third son, were the true ancestors of the Jewish people. This story is similar to the mythology of their neighbours, and I deal with this comparison in this post: The mythology of Creation.
The idea of a monotheistic god, which is central only in Jewish mythology, may have been adopted from the idea of the single sun-disc god of the “heretic king” Akhenaten of Egypt, who ruled for 17 years in Egypt, and who died in c1334 BCE, well before the establishment of Jerusalem and the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah. This hypothesis does not prove to be valid on closer inspection. All records of Akhenaten and his heresy were expunged from Egyptian history after his death so there were no records for the Jews to examine. It is more likely that the monotheism emerged by evolution of the religion, rather than being the cause of the religion, making their god more powerful than all others because he was all-seeing and all-powerful
Once the people of El or Jahweh, as he became in the later stories, had established their religion, the origins of the religion were expunged from their stories, to be revived only centuries later when more enquiring people looked for more than just the Bible for the origins of the religion.
The similarities between the gods from Sumer through to the Hittites, down to the creation of the single God, JHWH, or God the Father, show the evolution of the deity and how the stories were adapted to arrive at the point where the people created begin to become self-sufficient, i.e. the expulsion from “Eden.”
What was the reason for the creation of gods, and what stimulated the need for gods? Why didn’t people merely follow their natural instinct to preserve the species, and to protect each other? The answer is a simple one: in every animal society, i.e. where animals live together in social groups, there is always one dominant member. Whether these are monkeys, or apes in our case, elephants, lions or even ants. There is always one member of the group who decides where to settle, who is to hunt for food, and how the settlement is organised. 
Being able to explain how the particular god performed the creation was a way of gaining status in the society, especially if the person telling the story was also older than the people to whom the story was being told. Thus the elder of the tribe, the story teller, became the priest and the wise person to whom all the people in the tribe deferred, and what better way to retain that deference than to claim an ability to talk to the gods? For this reason we see that all the story tellers or the main characters in the Old Testament are also old men, and that the patriarchs of today’s main religions are also mostly old men. 
It seems to me that gods were merely a way for a privileged few people from a society to control the society, and to get the society to pay for their upkeep. These privileged few people, were the contact between the society and the gods, interpreted the unknown to them and in giving power to unseen gods were able to convince the ignorant about anything, as long as the explanation was that the gods were responsible. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Original sin and its implications for Christianity

I saw an interesting comment from someone on one of the forums I frequent.
According to the forum member, without original sin, there would be no need for Christianity to exist, seeing that Jesus died as sacrifice for the sin into which all people are born, as a result of the criminal act of Adam and Eve in eating the "forbidden fruit."
If it can be shown that the Genesis story is mere mythology, then the "fall" would not have happened, and therefore there would be no "original sin," no reason for Jesus to have existed, or died, and thereby, no need for the religion.

What is original sin? According to the Catholic Church, who were the original formulators of the Christian religion, from the Wikipedia page on this topic:
By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all humans. Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin". As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called "concupiscence").
The Catholic Church (according to Augustine of Hippo), and most Protestant Christians in their "christening" of newborns, believe... 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1261 declares: "As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: 'Let the children come to me, do not hinder them, allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism."
…that all children are "born in sin" and need to be absolved of that sin by baptism and then, being raised as Christians, they have to be taught to live the religious life and be "saved" from eternal damnation by their religious life experience, and by the "free will" given to them by God to do so. (The subject of free will is another topic for another discussion, at another time).
More and more properly conducted research, both historical and archeological, is disproving the truth of the historical accounts in the Old Testament, and most certainly the story of the evolution of humans. 
Does this mean that within the near future, we will see Christianity disappear as a result of this? Will people realise that if there was no original sin, and therefore no need for the Jesus story, that the whole idea of Christianity is based on a falsehood and therefore not valid. Or will they continue to believe that there has to be some reward after this life and that the only reason that they obey the rules of their religion is to obtain "eternal life?"