Thursday, July 23, 2015

More evidence of how religion harms mankind.

A friend of mine, Don Wharton, the coordinator of my monthly discussion group from WASH, the Washington Area Secular Humanists group, posted in an email thread on Meetup a link to a video of Neal DeGrasse Tyson demonstrating how Islam turned a progressive and successful Arab culture into "an abyss of intellectual darkness", as my other friend Lance, put it.

His methodology involved an examination of two things:

The scientific principle of naming rights.

The numbers of various nationalities/ethnicities with Nobel Prizes for scientific advancements.

First, he noted how the naming rights thing works, that whomever first works on something or discovers it has the rights to name that thing.  Which is why so many heavy metals are named after parts of the U.S.- cause the people who discovered them were working here in this country.  He noted that the constellations are largely named in Greek, because the Greeks were the first to really do that (at least in western civilization).

Yet, the stars themselves largely have Arab names.  Why?  Because the period in which they were discovered and named was during a period when Baghdad was the cultural center of the world.

Which ended when a fundamentalist form of Islam took over that culture and shut down the scientific inquiry.

He also notes the fact (which some have tried to call Islamophobic) there are only about two Nobel Prize winners of Muslim belief, while the rest are either Christian or (a full 25%) Jewish.

All of which he uses to drive home the point of Islam's tendency to harm the cultures in which it holds power.

I would like to expand on that thought, lest people think that this applies only to Islam.  Some may point out that almost 75% of Nobel Prize winners are Christian, and the founder of that prize was too.  Yep, no argument about that.

But I would counter that some politicians in this country, who are being courted by the Republican Party, have made statements to the affect of denigrating science, and in fact, have promulgated laws which are decidedly anti-science in their affect and intent.  Every one of those politicians identify themselves as devout Christians, and use that anti-science attitude to pander to a fundamentalist audience.

Remember that Arab culture?  How they named a huge percentage of the stars we now know?  How they invented advanced forms of mathematics, including the concept of zero?  Tyson's point was that they haven't done that for a thousand years.

Over a THOUSAND years.  Until Islam killed that culture's scientific progress, it was the one culture that was preserving mankind's scientific knowledge, after the fall of the Romans.  Think for a moment, how much scientific progress was lost.  How many advances in science were NOT made over that thousand years?  What might we now know, scientifically, had that progress a thousand years ago not halted?  Would we have invented chemistry over half a millennium earlier than we actually did?  Imagine for a moment if the Industrial Age had begun over five hundred years earlier.  How many medical advancements would have occurred, how many diseases defeated?  Would we now have a cure for cancer?

All of these things are now little what-ifs, because a fundamentalist form of Islam shut that all down.

Do we really want to do that here, today?  Do we really want to take the wealthiest country on earth, where the resources abound and we have already done so much, and make it an intellectual desert?  Do we want to allow a few (less than 20%) Americans to dictate to the rest of us what kind of a culture we will have going forward?  Do we really want to take the scientific community of which we have been so rightfully proud and set it back a thousand years?

Do the Christians of this country want their religion to be the cause of that disaster?  For history to record such shame?

Somehow, I doubt that.

But without a concerted effort, a minority of Christians in this country will use their religion's written tenets to do just that.

Which is why I have written about how harmful religion is and can be.  It doesn't have to be that way, but sooner or later, because the words are written in their holy books, someone somewhere will take those words and act them out, which will cause untold harm to individuals as well as the entire human race.

It isn't because religion is always used that way that is the problem, it is a problem because it always CAN be.  At any time, by anyone, anywhere.  And because those words are written in their holy book, people will take them seriously.

And the rest of us will suffer for it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

There's a hidden cancer infecting America

I've been doing some genealogical work off and on for decades.  I've managed to find ancestors (in concert with others on going back to the 15th century, at least on the German side.  Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of biographical info to be found going that far back, but given that the earliest I can find that do, my folks in that country were farmers.  I've got others in Britain, Ireland and Scotland, and the DNA says also in the Scandinavian countries.  (Given the history, they were probably viking settlers in England.  Yay, Vikings!)

So far, there isn't anything that indicates that very many, if any, of my ancestors had much education, nor that any may have been aristocrats.  There are a few pics of some Scottish folks going back into the 19th century who were wearing what appears to be suits, so they may have been fairly well off merchants.  One guy living in Ohio around the Civil War was a printer, and well known for starting a newspaper in Oklahoma before he moved back east again.  His brother was an Ohio Supreme Court Justice, according to his obit.  Probably the most successful of my ancestral line in this country anyway.

But, no evidence any of them got a University education.

I do.

So, I may be the first of my family in who knows how many generations to actually graduate from a University with a degree.  Yay, me!  (Thank you, again American taxpayers, who, through the GI Bill, financed that education.  I mean that sincerely.  It was a fair trade, I gave you four years of my life standing tall against the USSR, and you gave me a four year education.  Kudos all around!)

But.  (Isn't there always a "but"?)

There are those in the Republican party (and I ran into one earlier this week) who would have you think I am some kind of "elite".  That a University education will turn you into some kind of liberal (as if that is an insult - go figure...) atheist brat that is somehow a kind of moocher.  (???  I can't figure that out, if a degree gets you a higher paying job...?)  Maybe they're jealous or something.

Their accusations are even more wacky, given that the very politicians who are pushing that "elitist" bullshit are, themselves, grads of such places like Harvard or other Ivy League institutions.  Talk about elitist!

But, I want to address this crap.

I, and most of the people who graduate today, especially on the GI Bill, are not elitists.  We are your average American, trying to get ahead.

I worked hard, for over eight years, for that degree, and went to two institutions.  I worked during the day at a full time job (which did not meet all the bills by any means, and we had NO credit card debt) and went to school after work, evenings, and often on Saturdays.

I missed a lot of watching my kids grow up.  I spent a lot of time hitting the books when I could have spent it with my wife or playing with the kids.

And you DARE to call me an elitist?  Elite compared to whom?  What elite "club" do I belong to?  Oh, yeah, maybe you're talking about the alumni groups.  Well, the one (if there is one) for the community college I went to has never contacted me.  Some "club".

The alumni folks at the University of Texas (Dallas) where I got the degree have contacted me over the years, and I am probably listed in the alumni book.  But that never got me a job, it never resulted in any other advantages, save an opportunity to tour the CIA HQ facility at Langley.  Which was fun, but it didn't pay any bills.

So I am at a loss to tell exactly what that "elitist" tag is supposed to mean, except to try to set me apart from your average American.  It's the newest cancer infecting the body politic in this country, this distain and almost outright hatred for people with an education.  The funniest thing is, what sets me apart isn't my education - although it helped me get this job.  It's the nice pension I plan on cashing in on in the not to distant future.

You see, I worked for that too.  Forty-two years and four months when I finally walk out the door, to be exact.  Yeah, what sets me apart is that work ethic!  You know, that work ethic Republicans claim that only REAL Americans have.

But not liberals.  Nope, not liberals, at all.  We're "elitists", we're lazy as Federal workers, with no work ethic.

Well, screw you folks.  I'm voting for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic Primary, and if he wins, I will PROUDLY cast my vote for the first real LIBERAL to grace an American national ballot in decades.  If he doesn't, I'll vote for Hillary, and I'll spit in the general direction of the Republican National Committee Headquarters.


Monday, July 13, 2015

The Second Amendment Solution: Searching for the Right Problem

I could provide links to all kinds of places where the toll of firearm deaths in America are recorded and listed, sadness heaped upon tragedy.  I won’t, though, because this isn’t about the tragedy;  plenty of folks have written about that, and I doubt I could add much to that heap o’ words.

What I do want to do is to talk about my own feelings regarding the Second Amendment and the state of firearm ownership in America today.

When I grew up in Texas, starting in the 1950’s, private gun ownership was unchallenged.  Our TVs were filled with the Westerns in which every citizen carried a firearm;  my dad owned one with which he taught me the basics of firearm safety and how to shoot.  (bolt action 22)  His lessons on safety started out with, “Don’t ever point a weapon at someone unless you intend to shoot them.  If you DO point it at someone with the intent to shoot, don’t hesitate.  Do it.”  There were other details, including the same thing my Drill Instructors in the Army taught us, “There is no such thing as an unloaded weapon.  They don’t exist.”

If every firearm owner in the US followed just those two precepts, the numbers of firearm deaths in this country would be much lower.  Unfortunately, there isn’t an IQ test for buying a firearm in America.  Or, probably, anywhere.

Ok, that said, on to the Second Amendment.  So, yeah, I grew up with the assumption that firearms were the unchallenged right of every American to personally own.  Then I went to college and got educated, and in that Constitutional Law course, I learned that there were some wrinkles to that assumption.  Since, of course, serious constitutional Scholars have written online articles noting that many scholars had felt and understood that Amendment to mean exactly what it said about militias, and seeing the real, actual history about the Revolution, I can see the point.

Unfortunately for those folks, the SCOTUS ruled a few years ago that people DO have a personal right to own a firearm, while still leaving in place the rulings which give States and Cities the right to regulate firearms in the name of public safety.  This is, of course, an ongoing struggle to define what public safety means, requires, and what the Constitution allows.  It may never be decided.

Which isn’t a bad thing.  Unlike the most conservative of the right wing, it is obvious when reading the writings of the Founders that they intended the Constitution to be a living document (sorry, Scalia), and therefor provided a method for amending it.  They even made statements like Thomas Jefferson’s in which he hoped future generations would alter it regularly to stay updated with current political and social realities.  The man wasn’t stupid, he was a radical of his day, not a conservative.  He wanted us to keep it real, and relevant to our own time and reality.

Times change, people change.  When the Constitution was written and ratified, the Revolution was the biggest story, that and creating a new country.  The Founders wrote that document based on their experiences and based on how they felt about what they had just done.  The frontier of 19th century America wasn’t on their radar yet.  As time went on, the frontier got more and more important, and people’s experiences with pushing the natives off of their land made it apparent that anyone attempting the move west was going to need some kind of weapon to just feed themselves, not to mention protecting themselves from resentful natives.

I suspect that if that experience had been more on the minds of the Founders, the Second Amendment would have looked very different.

But wait about 50 or 60 years past the turn of the century, and things began to look different.  As the frontier States moved west, and the easternmost territories began to civilize, settle and become States, one thing became very clear.  Folks in settled towns and cities didn’t want a bunch of nutbags running around with firearms on their belts.  Most of them, as they became settled, enacted laws forbidding the open carrying of firearms, and I imagine concealed carry wasn’t far behind.  Even towns on the active frontier like Dodge City had laws forbidding open carry beyond certain limits.  They kept the riffraff on the other side of town to safeguard their homes.

It is a lesson apparently forgotten by today’s Republican Party and the NRA.

I won’t go over the stats about how many people we kill every year.  I don’t need to, they are well known.  The obvious conundrum we have today is how to satisfy the very large and politically influential gun lobby while still fulfilling the requirement for safeguarding public safety.  Now that the SCOTUS has ruled we can all own one, until that gets overturned (if it ever does) our task is to balance that right with the public’s rights to be safe and secure in their persons, homes and workplaces.  The problem we have is that the right wing doesn’t see it that way.  The NRA and other right wing interests have so stirred up their base that their only and main fear isn’t public safety, it’s preventing the government from taking their guns.

A problem that obviously doesn’t really exist.

Personally, I am torn on this one.  I do think people should have the right to own firearms, that right has been assumed for so long, it may as well be chiseled in stone somewhere.  But on the other hand, we MUST do something to stem the tide of murder, mayhem and negligence ridden deaths that annually top 25,000 people.

In case you have’t been paying attention, that is more than five times the numbers of soldiers we lost in Iraq.  EVERY YEAR.  Not in ten years, like Iraq.  Every. Fucking. Year.

Somehow, someway, we must find a way to stop murderous, crazy and incompetent people from getting their hands on firearms.  Not being an expert on making laws, nor law enforcement, I cannot really make any reasonable suggestions.

But it MUST be done. Somehow.

I will leave you with a thought.  I follow a blog called Stonekettle Station.  Jim Wright has a very interesting suggestion for how to at least begin to control our issue while at the same time changing the gun culture we have.  I recommend his solution to your perusal.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Gentle Piece of Advice

As many of you know from my many articles about the harm religion causes our society, I'm not exactly a fan of religion.

I do, however, respect your right to believe whatever crazy things you might think appropriate.  Even if I do my best to debunk it.


I am a realist.  I do realize that Atheists' dream of a religion free world is at best, centuries away, and at worst, a pipe dream.  So, there will be, for the foreseeable near future, some form of religion to deal with.

So believe me when I say that I've got some advice for American Christians in light of both the SCOTUS' ruling on marriage equality and the new Pew Research poll released a while back, which noted that not only are Americans deserting their religion in droves (Pew's words!), but the trend isn't slowing down.

Back off from the extremism.  Forget the mythical miracles, the unproven Resurrection, the ghastly, bloody crucifixion, the misogynistic paternalism.  None of that is a winning ticket in today's America, and especially not to the new Millennials.  If you keep that stuff up, in less than a generation's time from today, your churches will stand empty, foreclosed on by either banks or local governments once your tax exempt status is revoked.

Which it will be.

At least some of the "nones" still do believe in some form of spiritualism and are probably actively searching for something - anything - that can replace that old comforting feeling they got sitting in your sanctuary, listening to the music and knowing that all was right with the world.

So, if you still crave that old fashioned secular power tug, enhanced by plenty of donated cash, you can still reinvent yourself into something the younger generation will buy into.

Literally, of course.  What good is popularity with no money?  I'd be careful, though.  Many of them are a bit more discerning, what with all the online scams they're used to dealing with.

I'd read a few Science Fiction stories.  Those folks know how to invent religion!  (After all, look what L. Ron Hubbard did with Scientology!). I'm sure there are some real good ideas floating around the genre these days.  Hey, and those Millennials do read that stuff!

You can't do any worse than Paul did 2000 years ago.

Everybody has an ideology, right?

I think by now, anyone who has spent any time reading my timeline and stuff I post on Facebook (much less my blog “The Cybernetic Atheist”) is aware that I am an unapologetic, out-and-out atheist.  No surprise there.  As I’ve explained before, I’m an atheist because of what I’ve learned about the Bible, and from the lack of any real evidence of the existence of God.  (From which I surmise that Christ cannot exist - no Father, no Son, right?  So, Christianity is man-made.)

But, as so many people have noted, and I myself have also said, atheism is not a belief, it is the LACK of a belief.  Over 8,000 gods/goddesses which mankind has invented over the millennia, and I don’t believe in any of them.  For much the same reasons, in fact.

But, isn’t it true that everybody has to have something which guides them?  Some moral compass?  Some (for lack of a better term) ideology?  I think that’s true, and mankind has come up with literally hundreds of such ideologies, if not thousands, in the course of our becoming humankind designing all of the myriads of civilizations (and accompanying gods) which have come and gone since.

Oh, what was that?  What do I believe?

Funny you should ask, I was just about to get to that.

For starters, it also isn’t a surprise to my Facebook friends to note that I seem to be a liberal.  I used to call myself an Independent, but the Republicans have managed to push me much further to the left over the last ten years (though mostly over the last six for obvious reasons).

But there’s more than that, a political ideology isn’t a moral one, as moral as it may be possible for political ideologies to be.

Morally, I like to identify myself with Secular Humanism.  The basic ideals of that group of people resonate with me closely.  Just to make it easier, here is one example of their beliefs:
* A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted on faith.
* Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
* A primary concern with fulfillment, growth, and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
* A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
* A concern for this life and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
* A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
* A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
Obviously, there are other interpretations and versions of these, Secular Humanism is not a religion and has no universally recognized tenets or principles, though these are a good example of the general direction most Humanists tend to go.

Another principle I admire is one contained in the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm”.  If there is one overriding idea which intertwines itself into virtually all of the above principles, that would be it.  As a human being, into whose DNA the very urge of being a socialist animal is cooked, that seems to be the best guide to living one’s life, if one had to boil it all down to its basic elements.

That, I think, is one of the major differences between Humanism and religion - Christianity being my focus because of where I live.  Why?  Well, just look at the Ten Commandments, which Christians tend to look at (at least the Fundies here do) as the basic guidance provided by their God.

Without belaboring the point, look at the second commandment:
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Look at the passage I underlined.  That is the very opposite of “do no harm”.  To punish the innocent?  For the neglect and disobedience of their ancestors?  (I always kind of thought the jealousy was a sin.)

On the other hand, There is no example of jealousy or hatred in the Humanist principles above.  Quite the opposite, in fact.

Another reason why I think Humanism is better than Christianity (as well as others) is because of longevity.

Yeah, yeah, I know, Secular humanism is merely a couple of hundred years old at the most.  So, what gives?

As a movement, that’s true.  But the principles above are based on literally hundreds of thousands of years of human experience.   While our intellectual experience giving us the ability to express them well is fairly recent comparatively speaking, the basic experiences themselves derive from the totality of human experience going back over two hundred thousand years, fading back into our evolutionary past.  These principles are so well understood that they were expressed, discussed and argued over in various ways even as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers, who debated many of these very ideas well over two thousand years ago, predating christianity!

Yet, Christianity is only around two thousand years old, its Jewish antecedents go back perhaps another two thousand or so, and the developmental periods for both religions are rife with violence, tribalism, slavery and misogyny.  Hardly an atmosphere to encourage humanistic principles!  Granted, the Greeks weren’t a prime example of being a hotbed of modern liberal ideals either, but their philosophers fought for the idea of trying to make humanity better than we were, at least some of them did, and their example resonated with the fathers of the Enlightenment thousands of years later!

I firmly believe that religion is, to a general degree, concerned with one thing:  Its own survival.  For an excellent example, look at the first five of the Ten Commandments.  Every one of them are devoted to the preservation of the authority of God and his earthly representatives.  Keeping people in the fold, under the pain of death.  (Perhaps not an earthly one, but if hell isn’t a kind of eternal death, I don’t know what is.)

Certainly the fact that most if not all of His other dozens of commandments/laws in Leviticus command death as a punishment qualify as antithetical to Humanist principles.

Yet, Humanism is not.  Not a single principle above is devoted to ensuring the survival of a “Humanist religion”, mainly because there isn’t one!  The closest one can come is where it says, “A conviction that with reason, an open marketplace of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.”  Which does not at all entail a self serving principle of survival.

As you might have guessed by now, another focus of mine is that of anti-theism.  I am, admittedly, an anti-theist.  I believe strongly that religion, as a belief system(s) which encourages people to believe things which are false and contrary to reality, is harmful to not only individual humans, but humanity as a whole.  Much of my writing is focused on struggling to spread the truth about false beliefs and their harmful affects.

But even that is an outgrowth of my Humanist principles - see the next to last one above.  Religion is not a good introduction to ethical conduct - quite the opposite, in fact, as it encourages a plethora of unethical conduct, mainly by example, which precisely undermines its attempts at ethics through the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.  There may be millions of Christians who defy this, by being good - but that happens because they adhere to the Enlightenment principles expressed by our Founding Fathers, ignoring the more harmful and violent examples and verses of the Old Testament.  (One can see that, because of the various examples of Christians who do the opposite - adhere to the Old Testament’s more intolerant and violent prescriptions of conduct, and do all they can to undermine and violate the egalitarian principles contained in our Constitution.)

So, to make a long story shorter, while my focus may be on the harmfulness of religion and my attempts to explain how I arrive at those conclusions, my very positive beliefs are what informs that fight, wishing with all my heart that more people could see how much better America and the world would be without the falsehoods of faith.

I hope this helps to make my efforts more understandable.